Academic journal article Brazilian Political Science Review

Human Rights and Political Transition in South Africa: The Case of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission1

Academic journal article Brazilian Political Science Review

Human Rights and Political Transition in South Africa: The Case of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission1

Article excerpt

Prologue: ethnographic note

On the same day that I arrived in Johannesburg to start my research about the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), in August 2008, I was invited by my hosts to a dinner with friends. The first night in the city gave me a clear idea of just how alive and controversial my theme of research was, even ten years after the Commission ceased its activities. In a restaurant in a wealthy neighborhood of the city, an unexpected gathering brought together friends of friends. On the long table that formed, there were only whites, with the exception of a South African born and raised in Soweto, who was sitting opposite me. We started a casual conversation about the city and the weather, which then unfolded into brief narratives about work and profession. On the topic of my visit to the country, I explained the intentions of my research to him, to which he expressed a strong opinion: that the Commission is responsible for a large part of the problems facing the country, even today. This harsh assertion triggered instant reactions from other people in the group, who until that moment had not been part of the conversation. One middle-aged white woman inquired, in a calm manner, "what would be the alternative for the government? Vengeance? Revenge?" This inquiry provoked the fury of my interlocutor. According to him, the granting of amnesty to individuals knowingly involved in brutal crimes against humanity had corroborated a culture of civic irresponsibility in the country. As an example of this, he quoted the case of Winnie Mandela, a case which national television and radio networks accompanied for over eight consecutive years. Mandela's ex-wife was accused of being involved in the murder of a 14-year-old youth accused of being a police informant, but had persistently denied the crime, in spite of evidence and testimonies that unequivocally implicated her. Desmond Tutu, archbishop of the Anglican Church who presided over the work of the Commission, had encouraged an act of forgiveness in which the mother of the adolescent publically pardoned Winnie for the crime, despite the refusal of a confession. For the black youth of Soweto, that episode would become the symbol of the political mistake of the Commission: adjusted to the political conveniences of the situation, it had lefta legacy of impunity for the new democracy. The new era of politics had not established a clear break with the oppressive past.

The end of his indignant speech revealed dramatic information about his origins: "I am tired of pretending that my life started 10 years ago [an imprecise reference to the years of democracy in the country]; my life started 33 years ago with my mother raped by a white policeman".


The practices of racial segregation in the southernmost part of the African continent were legally formalized when the English, after dominating the old Boer republics, founded the Union of South Africa in 1910. Instituted in 1948, the apartheid regime (or 'separate lives', translated from Afrikaans) was a corollary of a model of social hierarchy which ranked whites, coloreds2, Asians and blacks, in that order. The distinction between these groups was ensured, for example, through the criminalization of inter-racial marriages and through differentiated policies regarding land access, remuneration and transport. It was the blacks, lowest in the regime's racial scale, who bore the brunt of the most severe measures of social control, such as forced removals, strict controls on urban mobility, labor market restrictions to manual work and the restriction of housing to specific regions in national territory, according to ethnic origins ascribed by the regime and in disregard of individual and family histories.

The first free elections in South Africa took place in April 1994, when the election of Nelson Mandela to the national government marked the end of differentiated citizenship as a political principle. …

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