Research South Africa

The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission

South Africa:

Truth and Reconciliation Commission


Truth and Reconciliation Commission


July 1995 – March 2003. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established in July 1995 and began operations on 16 December 1995. The TRC final report (volumes 1–5) was presented to President Nelson Mandela on 29 October 1998. The commission’s mandate was extended that year to allow for the conclusion of the amnesty process, and the final two volumes were released on 21 March 2003.


Mandate: Established by Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act 34 of 1995 to investigate gross human rights violations (abductions, killings, torture and severe ill treatment) committed by state actors and liberation movements between 21 March 1960 and 10 May 1994, to provide amnesty to individuals who applied and who fulfilled the criteria, and to recommend reparations to victims.

The commission also held special hearings focused on specific sectors, institutions and individuals. The commission had the power to search premises and seize evidence, subpoena witnesses and run a witness protection program.

Staff: Seventeen commissioners and up to 300 additional staff members. The commissioners were Archbishop Desmond Tutu (Chairperson), Dr. Alex Boraine (Vice-Chairperson), Ms. Mary Burton, Advocate Chris de Jager, Rev. Bongani Finca, Ms. Sisi Khampepe, Mr. Richard Lyster, Mr. Wynand Malan, Rev. Dr. Khoza Mgojo, Ms. Hlengiwe Mkhize, Mr. Dumisa Ntsebeza, Dr. Wendy Orr, Advocate Denzil Potgieter, Dr. Mapule F. Ramashala, Dr. Fazel Randera, Ms. Yasmin Sooka and Ms. Glenda Wildschut.

Structure: Three committees. The Human Rights Violations Committee collected statements and recorded evidence, the Amnesty Committee processed individual amnesty applications and the Reparations and Rehabilitation Committee designed and submitted recommendations for a reparations programme.

Budget: US$18 million each year for two and a half years, plus a smaller budget for another three years [Int’l IDEA | 2003].


In April 2011, the Constitutional Court of South Africa passed judgement on a defamation case brought by the former Ekurhuleni metro police chief, Robert McBride, against the Citizen newspaper. McBride sued the paper for defamation and impairment of dignity after a series of articles and editorials questioned whether he was suitable for the post of police chief in 2003. He had been granted amnesty for his role in bombing a bar in Durban in 1986, which resulted in the deaths of three women. In his appearance in the South Gauteng High Court in 2007, McBride argued that receiving amnesty meant the word “murderer” no longer applied to him. He further argued that, based on the articles, the public would view him as a criminal despite his having been granted amnesty [Citizen | 8 Apr 2011].

According to the rulings of the South Gauteng High Court and, later, of the Supreme Court of Appeal, those who received amnesty through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission should be considered as not having committed the offences for which they were granted amnesty. Consequently, both courts awarded McBride with damages for defamation.

In an attempt to strike a balance between keeping what happened in the apartheid past in the public conscience and ensuring that perpetrators of human rights violations who were granted amnesty will not face accusations that have been expunged from their records, the Constitutional Court overturned the previous judgements and ruled that the Citizen did not defame McBride [Business Day | 8 Apr 2011]. According to the court, the Reconciliation Act under which the amnesties were granted does not make the fact that McBride committed murder untrue. The court found that the Act does not prohibit frank public discussion of McBride’s act as “murder” or him being described as a “criminal” [SABC News | 11 Apr 2011].


The TRC received testimonies from approximately 21,000 victims, of whom about 2,000 appeared at public victim hearings. The TRC received more than 7,000 amnesty applications, of which more than 2,500 were heard at public amnesty hearings. It held 255 public amnesty hearings, which took place over 1,632 days. More than 17,000 victims received urgent interim reparations from the President’s Fund. The final report includes a range of recommendations, including proposals for a reparations programme and for institutional reforms to prevent future abuses.


From 1948 to 1990, the South African government instituted apartheid, a system based on racial segregation and repression of non-whites. South Africa’s transition hinged on conditional amnesty, where perpetrators of gross human rights abuses in both the apartheid regime and the liberation movements were granted amnesty provided that they disclosed the full truth of their crimes  to the TRC and could prove that these crimes were politically motivated and proportional to their aim. Perpetrators who chose not to apply for amnesty faced the threat of prosecution [Traces of Truth | 2011], although only a handful of prosecutions of apartheid-era crimes have been pursued in post-TRC South Africa.



About the author

Darren Rodriguez