Truth, Reconciliation, and Human Rights: A Reflection on South Africa’s Transition to Multiracial Democracy

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission
(TRC) in the Republic of
South Africa, created in 1995 just
a year after the first multiracial elections,
attracted attention around the world as
an example of visionary and courageous
political action in a time of great political
and social upheaval. The world had seen
nothing like it, and it suggested radical
new possibilities for large-scale political
change following the replacement of
authoritarian rule by democratic rule
(or, more accurately in this instance, replacement
of a democracy that restricted
the franchise to a racial minority with a
nonracial democracy). Although there
had been other “truth commissions” established
in order to assist such a transition,
none had set goals as ambitious,
or achieved as high a degree of domestic
and international visibility, as did the
TRC in South Africa.

At hearings held in cities and townships
across South Africa, family members
of anti-apartheid activists came
forward to relate, for the first time in a
public setting, the brutal repression that
had helped sustain the National Party’s
forty-year regime. And then, from the
audience, they listened as members of
the police and security forces acknowledged
that they had subjected thousands
of men and women to midnight raids,
extended periods of torture, and even in
some instances murder in order to combat
the “black menace” of Communism
within South African society. Eventually,
after initial resistance, victims of
African National Congress (ANC) violence
were also encouraged to tell of their suffering,
and some ANC leaders admitted
having conducted attacks on civilian as
well as military targets. Those who were
judged to have made a complete and candid
disclosure of their offenses, and to
have committed them as means to the
ends of their respective party in the conflict,
could apply to the TRC for amnesty
from criminal liability.

When the Commission presented its report to the nation in 1998, it was
greeted both domestically and abroad
as a symbol of a new mode of politics,
Mandela Cell
one which bypasses otherwise endless
rounds of accusation and counteraccusation
in a spirit of forgiveness and hope.
The dark past of apartheid was laid open
for all to view, with all its horrors; but
the Commission’s selective granting of
amnesty offered former enemies an opportunity
for reconciliation and cooperation.
Observers around the world hailed
the work of the TRC as a demonstration
that even the most entrenched systems
of power can be dismantled without massive
violence, that healing can overcome
mistrust and division.

Yet, for several reasons, the work of
the TRC provoked controversy from the
beginning. Supporters of the ANC objected
to the suggestion that there could
be any sort of moral parity between the
overwhelming violence deployed by the
National Party regime and the limited
military and quasi-military initiatives of
anti-apartheid groups. National Party
supporters, on the other hand, found the
report far too heavily weighted toward
condemnation of the apartheid regime.
Victims of government repression, including
the family of murdered activist Steve
Biko, objected to the very idea of granting
amnesty in return for truthful disclosure
because it released those guilty of heinous
crimes from legal responsibility for
their actions.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of
the TRC process lies in one of the principles
that was embodied in its founding
legislation and in the authority given to
the hearing panels: that full disclosure
of heinous acts of violence against others,
provided they were undertaken in
the context of a government or anti-government
agency, motivated by adherence
to its political ideals, and believed to
be necessary for the sake of long-range
goals, constitutes an adequate basis for
exemption from criminal liability for
those acts.

This was by no means an unintended
or concealed lesson of the post-apartheid
political process. It represented a considered
and deliberate compromise between
the moral imperative of upholding the
demands of justice and the opposing imperative
of finding a way forward in a society
that had been profoundly damaged
by decades of racial discrimination
and social and cultural
fragmentation. Nevertheless it
seems to represent a significant
retreat from normal standards
of justice.

The significance of this
compromise is seen most clearly,
perhaps, in the experiences
reported by some South Africans,
white and black, who
found themselves sitting in a
bus or cinema alongside individuals
who, they knew,
How, wonder the victims, can they
look us in the face when they have
paid no price for their crimes? How
can our society set them free to move
on with their lives, releasing them
from all legal responsibility for what
they have done?

had tortured or murdered their spouses or
children. Most of the relatives of the victims
of state violence learned at the TRC
hearings, for the first time, who it was
that had abducted and mistreated their
loved ones, and the accounts turned the
stomachs of listeners around the globe.
But if those guilty of such acts were
found to have made a full and candid disclosure,
and to have acted in pursuit of
the government’s policies and objectives,
their application for amnesty was usually
approved. How, wonder the victims, can
they look us in the face when they have
paid no price for their crimes? How can
our society set them free to move on with
their lives, releasing them from all legal
responsibility for what they have done?
Is this really necessary to achieve reconciliation
and rebuild our society?

In this essay I want to pose some
questions about the meaning and significance
of the TRC and examine the
controversies that it has provoked from a fresh perspective, focusing particularly
on ways in which the TRC advanced, or
impeded, the recognition of essential human
rights of the citizens of South Africa.
I will begin with a brief reflection
on the importance of truth in democratic
politics. Against this background, I will
address three questions concerning the
TRC: First, is the granting of amnesty
from criminal prosecution for gross violations
of basic human rights, in return for
truthful confession of such violations, itself
a fresh violation of the human rights
of those who were previously victimized?
Second, is the theological notion of forgiveness,
often invoked as a part of the
moral basis for the reconciliation process,
an appropriate ground for choosing
reconciliation over retribution in such
circumstances? And third, ought we to
posit, in addition to the familiar moral
and political rights that all governments
are obliged to protect, a distinct right to
truthful disclosure of injustice, and if so
might this right itself provide an additional
moral ground for the granting of
amnesty in such circumstances?

I. The Politics of Truthfulness

“We regret to inform you that the information
given out at last week’s press
briefing was incorrect.” So runs the script
for many an encounter between government
representatives and the press.
“Our estimate concerning the probable
outcome of….” and here we may fill in
any of a hundred topics: today it may be
federal monetary policy, tomorrow the
deregulation of telephone services, next
week the reorganization of county law
enforcement or the completion of major
public works projects.

To continue the script: “…were
based in good faith on the information
available to us at that time. New data
recently made public, however, point to
conclusions different from those on which
last week’s announcement was based.
The purpose of this press conference is
to provide you with substantially revised
timetables and estimated outcomes for
the program under discussion.” The prospects
for economic recovery, it turns out,
are worse than we thought they would
be. Consumer costs for telephone service
may not decline after all. Police response
time will not be reduced as much as we
had hoped. You will have to wait another
six months for the upgrade to city transit
systems. We’re terribly sorry about

Such an announcement may not
go over very well. Critics of the current
regime may argue that the earlier conclusions
were drawn too hastily, or that
more diligent investigation would have
uncovered some, if not all, of the new
data. No one looks forward to making an
announcement such as this or to fielding
questions afterward. Nevertheless,
such an admission of past errors of judgment
usually brings no more than a temporary
setback in public favor and press
opinion. Governors and agency heads
who conduct press conferences such as
the one just described usually remain in
office. A political career may encompass
dozens of such occasions on which one
must consume a meal of crow in full view
of the public.

But change the script a bit and consider
how the consequences would differ.
“We regret to inform you,” the public official
begins, facing the cameras, “that
the information we gave you last week
was incorrect. We knew it was incorrect,
but we didn’t want to tell you the truth.
The relationship of citizen to elected
representative depends essentially on
truthfulness and honesty concerning
public affairs. Lying, then, undermines
representative democracy.

So we lied. We were hoping to keep the
truth about [fill in the blank] secret, so
that we could retain your confidence and
protect our backsides. But unfortunately
someone has tracked down the accurate
figures that we suppressed and leaked
them to the newspapers. So we have no
choice now but to give you a revised estimate
of the completion schedule…”

Few public officials ever make
such an announcement. If they do, it
is likely to be their last statement to
the press–until it is time for a concession
speech to the challenger who ousts
them in the next election. Constituents
in representative democracies understand
that those whom they elect to office
will sometimes slip up, and honest
admission of a past error can be an asset
rather than a liability in the next
campaign. But lying is not regarded as
indulgently. Admitting past acts of deliberate deception, whether in a defiant
or a contrite spirit, is political suicide.

Truthfulness, in other words, is valued
very highly in democratic politics.
This is not to say that truth is usually
dispensed freely and unstintingly. The
disastrous consequences of being found
out in falsehood do not guarantee that
public officials will always tell the truth,
but they provide potent incentives at
least to appear truthful. Public officials
artfully disguise or omit facts they would
rather not announce openly. But even as
they do so, they know that blatant deceit
will not be tolerated.

An important principle of just governance
shows itself in these patterns of
political behavior: truth is an essential
political value. Citizens of a well-governed
democratic society are entitled to be told
the truth about matters that bear on the
public good. Lying to constituents is not
merely politically imprudent and morally
objectionable: it is a fundamental departure
from justice. Those who hold public
office have a duty to speak and act honestly
and to refrain from deliberate deception
in discharging their responsibilities.
Correlatively, citizens have a right
to be told the truth.

What is the moral ground of this
duty and this right? Let me suggest, in
a rough and preliminary way, how it is
related to other fundamental political
values. Essentially, the right to be told
the truth concerning public affairs is a
direct consequence of the nature of representative
democracy. If the legitimacy
of political power rests on the consent of
the governed, those who are entrusted
with public office carry out their duties
on behalf of those who elected them. This
is no less true of those who hold appointive
office than of those whose names are
on the ballot, since careful selection and
supervision of administrators is one of
the duties attached to elective office.

When a public official engages in
deliberate deception, the relationship of
elector to elected is undermined. If the
justification for my authority to enact
and administer laws and policies rests on
others’ having entrusted these powers to
me, but I have deliberately concealed or
misrepresented my actions or the factors
that motivate them, my deception nullifies
my authority. The relationship of
citizen to elected representative depends
essentially on truthfulness and honesty
concerning public affairs.
Lying, then, undermines representative

Truthfulness is by no
means sufficient for good
governance. The demands of
justice include respect for citizens’
political and personal
rights, impartial administration
of the laws, protection of
the vulnerable and disadvantaged,
and fairness–however this may
be defined–in economic matters. Yet all
of these ideals are predicated on truthful
communication between government and
the governed. If elected officials lie freely
to conceal their abuses of office, there
can be no assurance that any other ideals
of justice are being attained. A tyrant
may be truthful, but a liar cannot truly be

There are, to be sure, special circumstances
in which the duty of truthfulness
admits exceptions. They seem to fall into
two categories. First, there are circumstances
in which temporary concealment
is essential to the provision of important
public goods. A police detective building
a case against an organized crime boss
is under no obligation to tell her target
how much evidence she has gathered.
IRS auditors need not announce to the
public precisely how they have selected
returns for audit or enumerate the categories
of tax breaks that will be scrutinized
especially closely next year. If they
did so, in an excess of zeal for the truth,
they would undermine their own ability
to carry out their legitimate responsibilities
for the public effectively.

Second, there is a place for bluffing in
both domestic and international affairs.
Suppose the detective just mentioned
pulls in a suspect after being tipped off
that he is about to carry out a contract
murder. In the interrogation room, the
detective overstates the evidence already
in hand and thereby induces a confession
that fills in many gaps in the case file.
Or suppose the leaders of a nation whose
border regions are threatened by an aggressive
neighbor circulates exaggerated
rumors of its own military preparations,
thereby deterring an invasion that it
probably could not actually have blocked
if it had been launched. Are these violations
of the duty of truthfulness? Better
to count them as a second category of exception
to the general duty.

The exceptions do not undermine,
but only reinforce, the rule of truthfulness.
In the first category, concealment
is a temporary measure whose effect is
to enhance the likelihood that serious
breaches of the law will be detected and
punished. The detective must eventually
present all the evidence she has gathered
in a public trial. The IRS auditor must
inform the unlucky taxpayer called in for
an interview which items are under review,
giving him a chance to demonstrate
the accuracy of his return. In both cases,
concealment gives way to full disclosure
at later stages in the discharge of
the official’s duties.

Bluffing to dissuade others from
misconduct is also a special situation
that can be condoned without giving up
the claim that there is a general duty of
truthfulness. Two special features are
characteristic of the cases in the second
category: first, there is an urgent need
to prevent a grave and imminent wrong;
and second, there is clear evidence that
the person or group threatening this
wrong is resistant to the usual rules
of behavior and to conventional modes
of persuasion. Condoning the issuing
of a deceptive threat under such circumstances
need not imply any general
permission to deceive. The permitted
deception in this second sort of case
is not temporary, as in the first case;
but it is directed to the prevention of
an imminent harm from an agent who
has placed himself outside the network
of mutual accountability that democratic
politics presupposes.

There is a duty of truthfulness, I conclude,
that is attendant on the exercise of
governmental authority in a democratic
polity. The citizens of a democracy, in
turn, have a right to be told the truth by
their elected officials. Except in a few
unusual situations, lying to the people
is a fundamental failure of the responsibility
of office. “Give me liberty,” Patrick
Henry famously demanded, “or give me
death.” But first, we might add, give us
truth. Without it, liberty is hollow.

II. Truthful Confession as Basis for Amnesty: A Human Rights Violation?

Those who disclosed their acts of political
violence fully to the TRC, and who
argued persuasively that they were politically
motivated, were eligible to apply
for amnesty. (Only 894 of 5,792 applicants
were in fact given amnesty; but although
all the others are liable in theory
to criminal prosecution, only a handful
of cases have been brought, and of those
only some have resulted in convictions.)
Many thus gained their freedom, in effect,
in exchange for telling the truth.

It is important to note that the expression
of remorse, and the desire for forgiveness
and reconciliation, were not required
as a condition of the granting of amnesty.
Organizers of the TRC knew that setting
such a criterion would lead some perpetrators
to deeper moral reflection, others
merely to hypocrisy and pretense. Requiring
those guilty of an offense to exhibit a
particular psychological or moral attitude
is a practical impossibility, for the TRC
no less than for conventional judicial procedures,
since there is no reliable means
by which the attitude desired can be distinguished
from its simulation. What was
required was simply full and accurate disclosure.
Those who were perceived by TRC
panels to be misrepresenting their actions
or omitting essential parts of their account
were refused amnesty. Those who, in the
panel’s considered judgment, had made a
clean breast of it were eligible for immunity
from criminal prosecution.

The incidents disclosed in testimony
to the TRC amounted to heinous and
grave violations of the fundamental human
rights of the victims: the rights to
freedom of expression, freedom of association,
and and even the basic rights to
freedom from arbitrary arrest and from
injury and death.
Disrespect for human rights is shown first
by suppression of dissent, persecution of
religious minorities, and discrimination
against vulnerable ethnic groups; it is
shown again, just as clearly, when judicial
institutions turn a blind eye to allegations
of such injustice and permit it to continue

This holds true of the
victims of violence inflicted by the ANC
as well as of that inflicted by the National
Party regime: innocent citizens were
killed by bombs in shopping areas, for
example, and reprisals against dissenters
within the ranks of anti-apartheid
groups were often swift and severe. The
vast majority of human rights violations,
however, were committed by those acting
for the apartheid regime. And the scope
of the violence they inflicted extended far
beyond national borders, when security
forces conducted raids on ANC camps in
neighboring nations and assassinated
anti-apartheid activists while they traveled

Violations of human rights ought
to be punished, not ignored. To have a
right means being entitled to appropriate
measures of redress when the right
is violated, and it is a central purpose of
judicial institutions to achieve such redress.
When international agencies issue
blistering critiques of authoritarian
regimes for their lack of respect for human
rights, the target of their criticism
is not just the actions of the government
against citizens but also the lack of effective
punishment for such wrongs when
they occur. Disrespect for human rights
is shown first by suppression of dissent,
persecution of religious minorities, and
discrimination against vulnerable ethnic
groups; it is shown again, just as clearly,
when judicial institutions turn a blind
eye to allegations of such injustice and
permit it to continue unimpeded.

Does the TRC process, then, itself
constitute a violation of the human
rights of those who suffered grave harm
during the apartheid era? Is the granting
of amnesty to many of the worst offenders
against human rights in the past
a fresh transgression of the victims’ human
rights in the present?

To give an affirmative
answer to this question
is initially attractive.
Identifying the lack of effective
redress for past
wrongs as itself a human
rights violation seems
to capture well what is
most troubling about the
TRC process. Victims of
apartheid’s policies, and
their relatives, seem to
be victimized anew when
those responsible for torture
and murder go free,
simply on grounds that
they have at last told the truth concerning
their actions.

But to draw this conclusion would
be a mistake. The morally troubling aspects
of the TRC process should not be
construed as fresh violations of victims’
human rights. For to do so is to extend
the category of human rights too broadly.
The rights to which we are entitled as
human beings and citizens of our various
nations include bodily integrity, freedom
from arbitrary arrest and treatment, religious
liberty, free association, and more.
These individual rights impose on governments
a duty to protect and enforce them,
and that duty includes the establishment
and administration of fair and appropriate
judicial procedures and the imposition of
sanctions when rights have been violated.
But these duties of government allow for
a broad range of discretion, and they do
not give rise in turn to specific individual
rights for any specific outcome.

Consider the parallel case of someone
who has been the victim of theft. If the thief is apprehended, and the evidence of
his guilt leads to a finding of guilt, it is
the duty of judicial authorities to impose
an appropriate sanction. But the victim
of theft has no right to demand a particular
sanction, nor are her rights violated
if, because of extenuating or aggravating
circumstances, this sanction is heavier
or lighter than the victim would wish.
Even the exercise of clemency, releasing
the accused from a legal penalty already
imposed because of unusual personal circumstances,
is properly within the discretion
of government office-holders.

In the TRC, the same considerations
apply. The victims of apartheid’s violence
saw their human rights violated flagrantly,
and their rights impose a duty on the
government to hold the guilty accountable
and impose appropriate sanctions. The
policy permitting amnesty amounts, in
effect, to a large-scale grant of clemency,
not because of personal circumstances of
the accused but because of extraordinary
circumstances affecting the entire nation.
In enacting the enabling legislation
and in establishing and conducting the
TRC hearings, the elected representatives
of South Africa’s people–representatives,
for the first time in history, of every racial
and ethnic group–decided that sanctions
that would in other circumstances
be warranted would in this particular
period be impossible, for moral as well as
practical reasons, to impose.

The granting of amnesty, then, was
not in itself a human rights violation. We
need to look elsewhere in order to understand
why it is troubling, and whether we
should set our misgivings aside and acknowledge
its legitimacy.

III. “No Future Without
Forgiveness”: Theology
Usurping Politics?

We have been privileged to
help to heal a wounded people,
though we ourselves have been,
in Henri Nouwen’s profound and
felicitous phrase, ‘wounded healer’s.
When we look around us at
some of the conflict areas of the
world, it becomes increasingly
clear that there is not much of a
future for them without forgiveness,
without reconciliation. God
has blessed us richly so that we
might be a blessing to others.
Quite improbably, we as South
Africans have become a beacon
of hope to others locked in deadly
conflict that peace, that a just
resolution, is possible. If it could
happen in South Africa, then it
can certainly happen anywhere
else. Such is the exquisite divine
sense of humour.

–Desmond Tutu, “Chairperson’s
Foreword” (TRC Commission Report,
vol 6, 1998)

No one who followed the deliberations of
the TRC could fail to notice the religious
character of the hearings themselves,
which had the solemnity of a highchurch
ritual. Commissioners filed into
the hearing rooms in a clergy-like procession,
and a candle was lit to signify
the opening of the session. Archbishop
Desmond Tutu opened the first hearings
over which he presided with a prayer, but
later he yielded to objections that this
was out of place in a government-established
quasi-judicial procedure. After a
short time, however, the Archbishop returned
to his former custom, explaining
that he simply could not bear to listen
to the testimony before the panel without
first acknowledging God’s justice and
God’s mercy, and he begged the indulgence
of Jews, Muslims and agnostics for
this personal weakness of his.

In the eyes of some critics of the
TRC, the religious character was more
than superficial, and it compromised the
outcome in ways that undermine its legitimacy.
For the guiding principle of the
TRC process, they allege, was the substitution
of reconciliation for retribution, of
forgiveness for just redress of wrongs. In
effect, the TRC represented the imposition
of Christian values that apply to personal
conduct of adherents of a particular
religion on a multi-racial and religiously
pluralistic society. But the Republic of
South Africa has no right to demand that
the victims of past state violence forgive
those who have trespassed so heinously
against their basic human rights. Forgiveness is a fine thing in one’s family
and personal life, say such critics. But it
is a wholly inappropriate basis for public

The comments quoted above from
the TRC’s chairman invite such an interpretation
of the motivation for the TRC
process, as does the title of Tutu’s bestselling
book about South Africa’s transformation,
No Future without Forgiveness.
But theological grounding for political
action was already a pervasive feature of
South African politics, from the beginning
of the apartheid era and even before.
The Christian duty of forgiveness to
those who have wronged us is simply
not in the same category; it has to do
with personal and moral relationships,
where the TRC’s domain was that of
criminal liability.

The laws and policies that mandated separate
development of South Africa’s racial
groups were formulated by National
Party leaders who belonged to the Dutch
Reformed Church and who claimed to
find a rationale for their policies in Scripture.
Leaders of the opposition to apartheid,
within South Africa and abroad, included
Reformed, Anglican, and Catholic
Christians as well as observant and nonobservant
Jews and adherents of Islam.
South Africa resembles the United States
more than Europe in the high level of religious
adherence and participation; but
it resembles the Europe of an earlier era
more than the United States in the readiness
with which political leaders invoke
religious grounds in public discussion.
Archbishop Tutu’s appeal to God’s blessings
on his nation was in keeping with
this tradition.

This does not yet answer the challenge
just posed, however. Let it be
granted that religious discourse is an acceptable
element in public debate in the
South African context and that no one
would expect debate over issues of amnesty
and legal responsibility to be conducted
in purely secular terms. But the
challenge is more specific: it has to do
with the valuing of reconciliation over
retribution. Does not the policy of amnesty
in return for full confession represent
a wholesale grafting of theological
concepts into South Africa’s political life?
It is entirely appropriate for a priest or
a pastor to offer forgiveness to a parishioner
who confesses his misdeeds, especially
if the confession is accompanied by
sustained and genuine efforts to remedy
the harm that has been done to others.
But to place the state in the position of a
priest, and the perpetrators of apartheid
violence in the position of a parishioner
seeking forgiveness, appears to imply a
fundamental misrepresentation of the
relationship between individuals
and government. Worse yet,
a priest will surely withhold any
assurance of forgiveness until
the offender shows genuine signs
of remorse–an attitude that
clergy, unlike judges and hearing
panels, are able to identify
with reasonable confidence. The
TRC panel, on the other hand,
demands nothing more than
truthful testimony.

This objection, however, is
really about the way in which the TRC
process has been described by its most
prominent advocate, not the essentials
of the process itself. In the first place,
Tutu’s rhetoric aside, nothing resembling
forgiveness is offered, or could possibly
be offered, by the TRC’s panels. They
issued no judgments concerning moral
culpability, and they neither stated nor
implied that apartheid’s willing executioners
could now clear their consciences
of any sense of wrongdoing. They simply
rendered a judgment releasing them from
legal liability. The Christian duty of forgiveness
to those who have wronged us
is simply not in the same category: it has
to do with personal and moral relationships,
where the TRC’s domain was that
of criminal liability.

Secondly, the second of the two ideals
in the commission’s title must be
emphasized: its purpose was to seek
out the truth and thereby to achieve a
measure of reconciliation. This is not a theological ideal but a political one: the
urgent necessity in post-apartheid South
Africa is to build relationships of trust
and collaboration between racial and
political groups that had been engaged
in open and bloody conflict for decades.
Theologically speaking, it is legitimate to
hope for a deeper sense of mutual respect
and a richer engagement of individuals
with their own and other ethnic and religious
communities–these are fine things,
and they will surely come as byproducts
of South Africa’s political transformation.
But the goal of the TRC was quite different,
a concrete political goal: it sought to build
a basis on which a multiracial government
could make and carry out new policies
and in doing so receive support and
cooperation from those whom it had displaced
from power. The fundamental political
calculation that lay behind the TRC
process was simply that a new South Africa
could be built only if the horrors of the
recent past were acknowledged, brought
from concealment into the light, and then
set aside without trying to address them
using the cumbersome and contentious
processes of the criminal courts. This was
not a theological imposition on politics but
a difficult and controversial judgment concerning
political possibilities.

IV. A Human Right to the Truth?

In this concluding section I want to
suggest another dimension that may help
to explain, and then to resolve, the troubling
aspects of the TRC process. To do
so I want to return to the theme of the
first section of this discussion, the political
importance of truthfulness. If we
acknowledge the key role of the TRC process
in advancing the dissemination of
the truth about the apartheid era, perhaps
we will see more clearly the basis
on which it can withstand the criticisms
that have been leveled against it.

The suffering of apartheid’s victims
was greatly exacerbated by the persistent
refusal of the National Party to release
timely and accurate information concerning
its own policies and actions. From
the earliest years of National Party rule,
strict control over the press, secrecy concerning
arrests and detention, and misleading
public statements concerning incidents
of internal violence helped maintain
both a domestic political base and a
network of international support. The record
of the Reagan administration in the
United States is particularly shameful in
retrospect, but it was no worse than that
of the Thatcher government in the United
Kingdom or of many other nations that
ought to have looked more deeply than
the government’s own press releases into
the workings of the apartheid system.
South Africa’s geographical isolation, and
the limited success of the government in
controlling the media, helped prevent the
truth from getting out.

The TRC offered many South Africans,
black and white, their first glimpse
of the true nature of the apartheid system.
State brutality had been clearly
evident in certain past episodes, to be
sure, most notably the death of journalist
and activist Steve Biko in police
custody: few at home or abroad believed
the government’s story about an accident
and an abrupt and fatal illness. For the
most part, however, anti-apartheid activists
who died at government hands had
simply disappeared. Only when witnesses
came forward to appear before TRC panels
did their family members learn who had
seized them, where they had been held, or
how they were killed.

In this process, I want to suggest,
an important human right of the victims
of apartheid and their families was
at last being honored: the right to know
the truth. Governments, we noted earlier,
have a duty of truthfulness in communicating
with citizens, a duty that when flagrantly
violated may lead to their downfall.
The policies and practices of the National
Party government in South Africa
represented a systematic and pervasive
refusal to tell the truth on essential matters
related to public life. The TRC offered
an unprecedented opportunity to
replace lies with truth, and in so doing it
honored the human dignity of apartheid’s
victims. It satisfied, at last, their right to
know the truth.

If we recognize the right to know the
truth as a human right, we can identify more clearly the compromise that lies
behind the TRC’s aims and policies.
Granting amnesty in return for truthful
testimony represents an attempt to
honor both the human rights of apartheid’s
victims in the past, when they
were f lagrantly violated, and in the
present, when they can now be fulfilled
through full disclosure.

This does not remove the troubling
aspects of the truth and reconciliation
process, nor does it offer an entirely
satisfactory response to the agony of
the mother who finds herself in the
same restaurant or supermarket with
the police officer who killed her son.
But it sheds light on the complexity of
the relationship between past and present,
and between individual and community,
that politics must address. In
the unique and unprecedented circumstances
of South Africa’s transformation,
the establishment of a truth and
reconciliation process in place of judicial
accountability may well have been
the best way to honor all the human
rights of those who had suffered most
in the previous regime.

David A. Hoekema, professor of
philosophy at Calvin College in
Grand Rapids, Michigan, was a
visiting scholar at the University
of Kwazulu-Natal in Pietermaritzburg,
South Africa, in the spring
semester of 2006, where he conducted
research for a forthcoming
book on Finding the Hidden
Path: Contexts of Conflict and
Possibilities for Peace.