Truth, Reconciliation, and the Creation of a Human Rights Culture in South Africa

By Gibson, James L. | Law & Society Review, March 2004 | Go to article overview

Truth, Reconciliation, and the Creation of a Human Rights Culture in South Africa


Gibson, James L., Law & Society Review


One of the stated objectives of the truth and reconciliation process in South Africa was the creation of a political culture respectful of "human rights. Thus, part of the "reconciliation" sought by the truth process was nurturing a set of cultural values among the populace that would make the gross human rights abuses that characterized the apartheid regime difficult if not impossible to reimplement in the future. Those creating the truth and reconciliation process assumed (hoped) that knowledge of the truth about the country's apartheid past would somehow contribute to the development of such a culture.

The purpose of this article is to investigate whether a culture respectful of human rights has been created in South Africa. Based on a survey of roughly 3,700 South Africans (concluded early in 2001), I begin by conceptualizing what it means for cultures and individuals to be supportive of human rights. This conceptual approach then provides guidance for operationalizing support for human rights-and in particular support for universalism in the rule of law-within the survey context. Thus, the first objective of my article is descriptive: To what extent has a human rights culture been created in South Africa?

But this article is about far more than describing the human rights culture of South Africa. The truth and reconciliation process hypothesizes that "truth" can contribute to this culture. But does it? With measures of the degree to which individual South Africans accept the truth about the country's apartheid past, this hypothesis can be rigorously tested. In addition, I explore a variety of additional explanations of support for human rights values, ranging from experiences under apartheid to attitudes toward South Africans of a different race. I conclude that whether a South African prefers a universalistic approach to the rule of law depends upon truth acceptance, interracial attitudes, and support for strong majoritarianism. Still, even with controls, racial differences in attitudes toward the rule of law persist in contemporary South Africa. Perhaps the most important contribution of this article is its evidence that the truth-participation in a country's collective memory-can affect the values that individual citizens hold.

Reconciliation requires that all South Africans accept moral and political responsibility for nurturing a culture of human rights and democracy within which political and socio-economic conflicts are addressed both seriously and in a non-violent manner.

(Truth and Reconciliation Commission 1998:435)

South Africa's truth and reconciliation process was surely the most ambitious the world has ever seen. Not only was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) charged with investigating human rights abuses and granting amnesty to miscreants, but the process was expected as well to contribute to a broader "reconciliation" in South Africa (the "reconciliation" half of the truth and reconciliation equation). In a country wracked by a history of racism and racial subjugation, and one just emerging from fifty years of domination by an evil apartheid regime, doing anything to enhance reconciliation between the masters and slaves of the past is a tall order indeed.

As the opening quotation illustrates, however, the truth and reconciliation process was also given the task of building a political culture in South Africa that is respectful of human rights. The process was backward-looking in the sense of being expected to document and deal with the gross human rights violations of the past, but it was also forward-looking in trying to prevent future tyranny. Its assignment was to nurture a human rights culture that would serve as a prophylactic against rights abuses in the future.

In an effort to address this mandate, the Final Report of the TRC included in its recommendations a section on the "promotion of a human rights culture" (TRC 1998:304-49). Most of the recommendations concern actions to be taken by the government (e. …

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