Source: (2004) Paper presented at a conference entitled Ten Years of Democracy in Southern Africa, organised by the Southern African Research Centre, Queens University, Canada, May.

Truth commissions have become a common feature in the landscape of countries transitioning from systems of authoritarianism and civil conflict to a democratic order. The popularity of these commissions increased dramatically with South Africa's own Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) established in 1995. Tasked with investigating and recording incidents of gross human rights violations that occurred during the apartheid past, as well as granting amnesty to perpetrators, the TRC has gained itself a reputation in the international arena as a successful facilitator of a transition that many feared would veer into civil war. Around the world, images were broadcast of an interaction of confession and forgiveness; the South African script of 'reconciliation' that was depicted as laying to rest a racially divisive past and paving the way to a new future as a 'rainbow nation'. The realities of the transition however have been far more complex. Racial prejudice and violence did not suddenly disappear in 1994, but instead continue to play out through out this period of political transformation, standing as an obstacle to substantive equality and inclusive citizenship. The following paper evaluates the contribution of the TRC to current understandings of history, identity, and reconciliation. The argument presented here is that the TRC, in its determined pursuit of a particular kind of reconciliation, was ironically silent on the issue of race – ironic given that it was functioning in the context of a country whose entire political and economic system was premised on the organisational principle of race. The impact of this silence is evidenced in the nature of the reconciliation it has achieved today. (excerpt)