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Pursuit of Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa

Graybill, Lyn
June 4, 2015

Source: (1998) Africa Today. 45(1): 103-133.

How do governments deal with human rights violations committed by former regimes? South Africa’s solution has been the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), a carrot-and-stick approach that offers amnesty to those who come forward to disclose their deeds and the threat of criminal prosecution to those who do not. On the heels of an exceptional transition of power in which an entrenched ruling group relinquished control without imminent military threat, South Africa embarked on an equally unprecedented process of national reconciliation. Because the African National Congress (ANC) did not win a military battle but instead came to power through a negotiated settlement, compromises had to be made in order to win the National Party’s support, to ensure democratic elections, and, above all, to promote peace. In the words of Kader Asmal, one of the key architects of the TRC who argued for a process that would not insist on criminal prosecutions, “We sacrifice justice for truth so as to consolidate democracy, to close the chapter of the past and to avoid confrontation.” To acknowledge that the politics of compromise may be at odds with a strict notion of justicexe2x80x94what Reinhold Niebuhr called “perfect justice” is not to deny an ethical basis for the TRC. In assessing the TRC’s success, one must ask: If not justice, what does the TRC offer? What follows is an assessment of the political, procedural, and ethical criticisms of the TRC. (excerpt)


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