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Truth-finding : a path to reconciliation ?

Reflections on the work of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission - A contribution to the Decade to Overcome Violence (2001-2010)

Christian Hohmann, Introduction by Fernando Enns


In lieu of a preface

Introduction: “And the truth will set you free” by Fernando Enns

Truth-finding: a path to reconciliation?

1. At a crossroads: South Africa between state of emergency and new political beginning

2. South Africa in the shadow of its horrifying past

3. The Truth and Reconcilaition Commission: a compromise as a solution

4. The limits of reconciliation: the problem of amnesty

5. Did the Truth and Reconcilaition Commission achieve its aim?

6. Prerequisites for the reconciliation process



The Theology and Peace series


In lieu of a preface

In their book Der Traum vom Regenbogen (The Dream of the Rainbow), Karin Chubb and Lutz van Dijk have collected Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) testimonies from children and youth. Innumerable children and youth suffered terribly under the apartheid regime, were active in the resistance movement, were arrested and tortured. Hundreds of thousands suffer today from the consequences of their lost childhood, suffer because of their traumatic experiences and the loss of friends and family members. Different experiences of violence and the consequences of violence, such as those experienced by Riefaat Hattas and Gilian Schermbrucker, are at the forefront of this book.1

Riefaat Hattas, born in 1968 in Cape Town, took part as a youth in school boycotts in Manenberg, a so-called “Coloured” section of Cape Town. In his testimony before the TRC, he reported the following:

“[...] However, many never realized the kind of psychological stress and trauma we have been subjected to. Many Comrades had to go into hiding, others were in exile away from their loved ones and friends, but the majority of us who remained behind to continue the struggle for liberation. For those Comrades who were sought by security police it was the start of a nightmare, a nightmare that was going to be so horrendous, it was going to destroy our lives. Never could we have imagined that at the age of 15, 16, 17 and 18, we would have been running away from police and going to safe houses only to find police coming to look for us there. We were going crazy with all the thoughts of being captured, tortured, maimed and even killed at the hands of the security police. We were never sure whether would see our parents, brothers and sisters again. One thing was certain, we were not teenagers any longer. We have aged ten to 15 years in a matter of months [...]

Many of us were caught by security police. In detention we were interrogated, tortured, maimed, violated and continuously harassed. After this horrid experience we suffered from nervous tension and were all nervous wrecks. We could not continue school like normal pupils. Our lives were destroyed. [...] If only there were people to help us through our trauma.”1

On 25 July 1993 at the age of twenty, Gilian Schermbrucker, born in 1973 in Zimbabwe, was critically injured in the Azanian People’s Army’s (APLA) attack on the St. James Church in Cape Town. A few years later she visited one of the perpetrators, Gcinikhaya Makoma, in Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town and after this meeting remarked:

“[...] I think it was also hard for him. It was the first time that he had contact with one of the victims. To be confronted with what you did, to relate to this in some way ... this will certainly be difficult. I wasn’t expecting him to suddenly be full of remorse and regret. I don’t want to sound too pious but my wish for Makoma is that he can find peace with God. The forgiveness I freely offer him is insignificant. I don’t want him to suffer or to otherwise be harmed because of what he did. As I left the prison I wished I had a key and could tell him, ‘Go and live, live fully, make something of your life! Do good things now...’ and [...] I really think he would do it.”

Christian Hohmann

Translated from the German by Terri Miller


1. Der Traum vom Regenbogen (The Dream of the Rainbow). Karin Chubb and Lutz van Dijk. Hamburg, 1999.

2. Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Youth Hearings, 22 May 1997.

3. Chubb and van Dijk, pp. 168.


And the truth will set you free

Looking ahead to the ecumenical “Decade to Overcome Violence”

Fernando Enns

In many regards South Africa has an almost paradigmatical function for the ecumenical movement. Certainly the same or similar developments have taken place in other locations - sometimes in an even more extreme manner -, but there is scarcely any other context where the problems have been named and made public knowledge worldwide in such a clear fashion. South African representatives have understood how to remain in dialogue with people in other contexts in order to then follow their own and genuine path. As many people are aware, South Africa is the site of Mahatma Gandhi’s first acts of resistance and civil disobedience. Through the World Council of Churches (WCC) Programme to Combat Racism (PCR) the struggle against oppression and the defense of freedom gained prominence - but also attracted criticism. As Nelson Mandela remarked, “To mention your [WCC’s] name was to incur the wrath of the authorities.”1 The moulding of the start of the post-apartheid era through the implementation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and the impetus at the same time resulting in the Programme to Overcome Violence, which itself led to the decision of the WCC Assembly in Harare in 1998 to call for a Decade to Overcome Violence (2001-2010), illustrate the still close connection of the South African context with the worldwide ecumenical movement. In addition to continually increasing violence, new challenges can be found first and foremost in ensuring economic justice and strengthening democracy in today’s globalized world.

The ecumenical movement has the South African context to thank for many crucial insights, and, conversely, integration in the worldwide ecumenical family has always played a decisive role in events in South Africa. Only during discussions concerning the PCR, did I myself - coming from a pacifist-oriented, peace church tradition - first begin to comprehend the complexity of the questions and issues arising from the interrelation between nonviolence and justice. Since then it is no longer possible for me when speaking with persons who, by virtue of their ethnicity, have been victims of violence, rape and oppression to insist in a morally superior manner on Jesus’ call for an absolute refusal to employ violence. In South Africa I have learned that, despite continuing to declare my belief in nonviolence, each situation will need to be evaluated individually; that above all the central preoccupation must be to listen attentively to the victims, not to judge or condemn from a safe distance on the basis of my dogma-like convictions. The witness for nonviolence and readiness for reconciliation of Christians, who despite the circumstances and all they have experienced remain true to these beliefs, becomes that much more impressive and encouraging.

In this respect it is worthwhile now to examine more intensely the political process of reconciliation in the very fragile post-apartheid era and to review the individual steps of this process on which the TRC had a determining influence. It cannot be a matter of leading ourselves to believe in a transfigured picture of a satisfied world that is not consistent with reality. South African friends themselves caution against this. Recently a South African friend of mine said: “Everything really becomes very dubious when I know that some of Steve Biko’s murders go unpunished. How can I talk about reconciliation?” And according to a survey, two thirds of all South Africans believe that the TRC has worsened race relations rather than leading people to reconciliation.2 Does truth lead to justice and reconciliation? What kind of truth? Violence continues to increase. Today South Africa has the highest rate of rape in the world. No, there cannot be a one-sided examination of the reconciliation process which plays down the situation; there must be a realization of the difficult, unresolved questions of the reconciliation process, questions which remain despite all the encouraging and exemplary efforts by the South African part of the ecumenical movement. What is the relationship between truth and reconciliation, between justice and freedom?

The following text is to serve as a contribution to this process of clarification: to understand from the truth and reconciliation commission model the enormous challenges reconciliation poses; to continue what was an initiative of and desire for ecumenical learning. This booklet is a contribution from and for the worldwide ecumenical family and as such fulfills the aims and working methods towards the construction of a culture of peace which the upcoming Decade to Overcome Violence has resolved to accomplish: “The Decade to Overcome Violence will provide a platform to share stories and experiences, develop relationships and learn from each other. [...] People around the world wait with eager longing for Christians to become who we are: children of God embodying the message of love, peace with justice and reconciliation.” (Message from the WCC Central Committee, 1999)

Translation from the german: Terri Miller


1. See Mandela’s address to the WCC 8th Assembly in Harare in 1998. Mandela continued: "Your [WCC] support exemplified in the most concrete way the contribution that religion has made to our liberation.” Jubilee (Newspaper of the 8th Assembly of the World Council of Churches - Harare, Zimbabwe), number 9, December 14, 1998

2. See Fischer Weltalmanach 2000, pp 758


Truth-finding: a path to reconciliation?

Reflections on the work of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission - A contribution to the Decade to Overcome Violence (2001-2010)

Christian Hohmann

On October 29, 1998, Archbishop Desmond Tutu submitted a provisional version of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Final Report to President Nelson Mandela. For three years this commission strove to investigate the innumerable human rights violations during the apartheid era, to reveal their background and to bring to light the truth about the torture and murder that took place. The goal of this truth-finding effort was to put into motion a process of reconciliation to contribute to bridging the deep divisions in South African society and promoting national unity. Certainly an ambitious attempt in light of the scope of crimes committed during the apartheid era, and employing a method without precedent worldwide. It is still too soon to judge whether the Commission’s task to enable reconciliation through the process of truth-finding has been successful. However the following is an attempt to evaluate to some extent the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). This evaluation includes the question of the extent to which the experience of this commission could be applied to other situations. To what extent can the TRC act as a model for countries that also have to deal with a burdensome past?

In order to assess at least partially the scope of the human rights violations during this time and the political background of the apartheid era, the first part of this paper describes the socio-political situation in the period of time preceding the TRC. The second part explores the question of how the burden of apartheid crimes was dealt with during the phase of radical political change following the first democratic elections in April 1994. The aims and basic conditions of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission are the topics of the third part, with the question of amnesty covered in the fourth section. Finally, the fifth part examines the proceedings of the three year-long commission and the tasks and processes remaining as follow-up work and as challenges for the churches and religious communities particularly in the areas of theology and pastoral counseling. The last section contains a reflection on the experiences of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission from a pastoral and theological standpoint.

1. At a crossroads: South Africa between state of emergency and new political beginning

The situation in South Africa had worsened dramatically by the end of the 1980s. Resistance to the apartheid regime had become increasingly extreme in nature, yet an overthrow of the government by the majority black South African population could not realistically have been expected in the foreseeable future. The government attempted with new and continually more brutal methods to hold the resistance movement in check and to splinter the black South African population on a political level. Internationally South Africa was sliding increasingly into a state of political isolation.1

For more than 300 years South Africa had been under a dictatorship and the absolute supremacy of a white minority made up of European immigrants and their descendants.2 This white minority fought long and bitterly to ensure the control of privileges - political leadership and access to South Africa’s economical and material resources - obtained at the cost of the black South African majority and to deprive the black South African majority of these needed resources. The political system required to accomplish this was separation of the races, or “apartheid”.

This concept was gradually developed and implemented by the Afrikaans-speaking descendants of Dutch and German settlers and finally by the English colonial government. From the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, and particularly following the governmental takeover by the National Party in 1948, apartheid ideology had been consistently enforced through an increasing number of racial separation laws. Despite an increasing number of protests - which remained nonviolent in nature up until the beginning of the 1960s - by different opposition parties including the African National Congress (ANC), founded in 1912, the white minority believed it could secure and maintain its dominance in South Africa forever.

From 1948 on the official politics of apartheid also received public justification by the Dutch Reformed Church whose ministers claimed the system was ordained by God. The English-speaking church did criticize apartheid but still tolerated it for the most part, as the white members of these churches were not keen to give up the privileges of this system.

From the end of the 1940s onward, the apartheid system showed its worst side, with the Sharpeville Massacre in 19603 and the bloody suppression of the school uprising in Soweto in 1976 hinting at the slow but eventual end of the racial separation state in the Cape area. The few remaining rights of the black South African population were increasingly and drastically restricted; millions of black South Africans were forced to resettle on reservations. Many of these so-called “homelands” were located in infertile and peripheral regions in South Africa. In the course of repeated, mandatory resettlements, these reservations soon became overpopulated and thus offered insufficient resources for an independent basis of livelihood for the persons who had been transported there. As such mother and fathers of families were forced to return to urban centers as underpaid migrant workers, miners or maids in order to earn a minimal wage to support their families. Most of these people had to live in ghettos for black South Africans - the so-called “townships” - located on the outskirts of the urban centers.

Apartheid meant the safeguarding of an absolute white dominance which from an economic standpoint required an ample - and conscripted - reservoir of cheap black labor. Apartheid was less the result of a specific racial ideology than first and foremost one of the most brutal realizations of a capitalist economic system. This system was without any moral obligation to ensure minimal social standards and instead served only the interests of a white minority. This was why opponents of the apartheid system were denounced as “communists” and persecuted with unbelievable severity. During this time the value of a human life dropped drastically, with a corresponding counter-reaction as well among the oppressed black South African population. A tragic, well-known example of this phenomenon was the event of “necklacings”, a grotesque method of killing those suspected of working as informants for the police or secret services of the apartheid regime by hanging a gasoline-soaked tire around the person’s neck and igniting it.

In 1985 resistance to the apartheid system increased. By this time a full state of emergency had been imposed which gave the police and security forces free rein to arrest or shoot on the spot any person who came under the slightest suspicion of opposing the government. Thousands of people died. Even thousands of children and teenagers landed in the soon overcrowded - and feared - South African prisons.

For a significant amount of time already, South Africa had not been solely under the leadership of the government but rather that of a secret security council which had built up a dense network of security forces and informers throughout the country and which was under the command of the South African president at the time, Pieter Willem Botha. In 1988 during a meeting of the national security council, no less than Botha himself ordered the bombing of the Khotso House, the main office of the South African Council of Churches at that time. Botha wanted to intimidate and silence the leadership of the South African Council of Churches which had at its disposal a large number of contacts both inside and outside South Africa and which had repeatedly pointed out to the public the crimes of the South African government and, since 1985, had called for global sanctions against South Africa.4

With the change in presidential leadership, a reform process began in 1989 under Frederik Willem de Klerk. Though often not overly transparent and at times hesitantly pursued, this process brought about fundamental changes. The most important decision was the revoking of the apartheid laws, followed by the reinstatement of the banned opposition parties and finally the release of Nelson Mandela on 11 February 1990. However, the killing continued unabated until the first democratic elections in May 1994, murders that were portrayed to the outside world as “tribal conflicts” among the black South African population. In reality there were more and more signs that a so-called “third force”, meaning members of the security apparatus, was striving to influence and destroy the reform process through planned attacks and massacres. De Klerk’s role in this development remained unclear.5

One such horrible experience was the Boipathong massacre in June 1992. People who survived the massacre reported later that whites were among the masked attackers, a clear indication of the interplay between white and black opponents of the reform process. These persons apparently enjoyed the protection of the government; at the very least they did not need to fear prosecution by the judicial system. Despite the swift identification of attacker Clive Derby-Lewis, the involvement of those behind the scenes of the shocking April 1993 murder6 of Chris Hani, general secretary of the South African Communist Party (SACP) at that time and one of the most influential politicians after Nelson Mandela, remains unclarified.

2. South Africa in the shadow of its horrifying past

This burden of innumerable unsolved crimes and the unknown fate of disappeared critics of the government hung like an immense cloud over the beginning of the “new” South Africa in May 1994. South Africa’s soul was deeply wounded, and even the charisma and readiness for reconciliation of the first black South African president Nelson Mandela could only nominally change this. Despite Mandela’s obvious effort at bringing together the various population groups in the new South Africa, the past of the apartheid era stood like a unresolved encumbrance blocking the country’s future path. Additional pressure came from details revealed in interviews with members of the former security apparatus who were now hoping for amnesty after taking the bull by the horns and voluntary breaking their protective silence. They now publicly confessed to their or their colleagues’ participation in atrocities, but excused this repeatedly by referring to the fact that South Africa had formerly been in a state of war. Further they believed that they were standing up for a just cause, namely the defense of Christian values in the face of a communist threat. Many of them were loyal members of their white church congregations and yet were still capable of committing unimaginable atrocities.

In this situation the question arose as to what means could be used to start a national process of healing and reconciliation so that the changes which had occurred in a peaceful manner up until this point could succeed on a long-term basis.7 The question had great urgency as with the political changes incriminating files and documents quickly disappeared or were destroyed in order to prevent from the outset their use as evidence.

Some people tried to rapidly forget the horrible events and their own role in them, former political leaders as well as those who had murdered or tortured apartheid opponents in killer commandos or prisons. The fate of many victims still remained unclarified and therefore also unatoned for: Who had ordered the crimes? Who carried out the orders? Freed political prisoners encountered their former persecutors face to face, mainly in local settings. For example many victims and perpetrators were members of local churches, sometimes even the same congregations, a very difficult experience for both sides. How should one interact given all that had taken place?

In this situation if there would have simply been a call for reconciliation in order to move on to “current” problems, it would have been tantamount to denying that the crimes had ever occurred. “Let the past remain in the past”, a position held by Frederick Willem de Klerk, could not be the motto for a new South Africa. De Klerk was the first to make a public stand for reconciliation, though without stating the necessary consequences, namely that whites would have had to begin to share their economic power with blacks.

When Mandela was freed in 1990 he also called for national reconciliation. But as someone who had spent 27 years in prison, Mandela - unlike de Klerk - could give new credibility to the concept of reconciliation. At first Mandela supported a very extensive concept of reconciliation in that he, as de Kerk before him, called for people to let the past rest. However there were widespread misgivings within the ANC, and the concern was expressed that there could be no genuine reconciliation without exposing the events of the past.8

This has proven to be the case in other political situations: what remains unclarified, unspoken and unatoned for continues to ferment under the surface and at the very worst can act as a time bomb with unforeseeable effects in the future. Only if the wounds of the past can be healed can the construction of a new democratic state succeed, although in order for this to take place there must be a willingness to confront the past, however burdensome it may be.

3. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission: a compromise as a solution9

Thus came the idea for a truth and reconciliation commission: a forum for working through the past and bringing to light and clarifying that which still remained unclear. Truth-finding stood at the forefront, not criminal prosecution. As such it was clear from the beginning that the TRC was not to function as an international court of law. Further it was not possible nor was it the aim of the TRC to implement any type of “victor’s justice”. Instead the TRC was to be the first attempt of its kind by a country, directly following the end of a regime of terror and a long, bloody liberation struggle, to confront its burdensome past on a national level and to bring together victims and perpetrators in a process of truth-finding. This process was to encompass all crimes committed during the apartheid era.

This called for the first readiness to compromise: namely, where a difference could have been made between the terror of the State and the violence of the political resistance, it was decided to undertake an honest appraisal of the violence of the past without making allowances for the perpetrators’ political sympathies - not even for members of the new governing party, the ANC, a decision which would have been understandable from a human point of view given the arduously won political changes. Still, some felt later that the TRC did not make things easy for itself with this balancing act and tended to view in relative terms the acts of terror that opponents of apartheid committed during the struggle for liberation while perpetrators from the apartheid regime were questioned and interrogated much more severely. Thus from the beginning the question arose concerning a qualitative comparison between the terror of the State and the acts of violence of the resistance. Was it not necessary to name the one as a cause and to understand the other as a consequence, even when in both cases people had been tortured or killed?

A further compromise was necessary so that the TRC be recognized by all parties as an official institution, even though today there is still a whole series of groups and persons that has refused to do so. This compromise consisted of the possibility of amnesty for the perpetrators if they made an extensive confession and could prove that there had been a political motive for their crime. In this manner the aspects of repentance and recognition of guilt, both of which are necessary according to the Christian understanding of reconciliation, were ignored. The same was true for a readiness - as a consequence of remorse and the recognition of guilt - to work for justice, particularly economic justice. “This was the price we had to pay for the peaceful transition,” remarked Archbishop Desmond Tutu. “There was no alternative. Without an amnesty agreement, there would have been no new South Africa. The country would have gone up in flames...”10 This amnesty arrangement created the possibility of dealing with South Africa’s past in a thorough manner and on a national level.

Thus the TRC was to serve two purposes whose psychological significance was not to be underestimated:

- the victims were to be given a voice for the first time and the opportunity to publicly express the suffering which they been forced to endure in silence up until that time, as, during the apartheid era, it would have been dangerous to inform the public of such injustice.

- the perpetrators were to have the opportunity to publicly take responsibility for their actions, show remorse and ask for forgiveness.11

In order to act as such a platform the TRC needed to be independent. In addition it was important for the success of the TRC that it receive from the beginning the political support of the democratically-elected South African government. Here South Africa showed an entirely different development than neighboring Namibia in the manner in which it dealt with its burdensome past.12

It was no less important to find a person of integrity to chair the TRC who would be accepted by all parties. In the end only one person came into consideration: the Anglican Archbishop and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Desmond Tutu from Cape Town. Tutu was known not only for his courageous and severe criticism of the former government but also for both his continual critical evaluation of the new government and his constant efforts for reconciliation and dialogue. This made him the authority figure with the integrity and credibility which was needed to assume the chair of the TRC in December 1995.

Originally the TRC was allotted 18 months to conduct the necessary hearings of thousands of family members and to process an equally large number of demands for amnesty. At the conclusion of this time period the TRC was to produce a final report and submit it to President Mandela. However the conclusion of the TRC had to be delayed time and again. At the end of October 1998 the TRC was able to publish a five-volume provisional Final Report consisting of approximately 2000 pages and submit it to President Mandela. Processing of amnesty requests continued until the end of 1999. The report from the Amnesty Committee is to be finished in mid-2000. Only when this process is concluded can the complete final version of the TRC’s report be published and made available to the public.

4. The limits of reconciliation: the problem of amnesty

7000 people have applied for amnesty up until now. Of this number, 125 have received official pardons. This is less than 5 percent. 4600 demands were rejected and more than 2000 must still be processed. These numbers show that the crimes of apartheid do not simply remain unatoned for. Eugene de Kock, former commander of the notorious secret police unit from Vlakplaas, who has the deaths of numerous apartheid opponents on his conscience, was sentenced to 212 years in prison for his participation in countless atrocities. Along with other crimes, de Kock took part in the attacks on the African National Congress’s London headquarters in 1982, the head office of the trade union Cosatu in 1987 and the headquarters of the South African Council of Churches in 1988.13

Still, the offer of amnesty resulted in many people breaking their silence about crimes that they had participated in and admitting their guilt. Others, like former South African president Pieter Willem Botha, steadfastly refused to appear before the TRC. Botha disregarded several subpoena from the TRC. To this day Botha, president in the 1980s, the worst phase of the South African apartheid government during which even political opponents outside of the country were mercilessly persecuted, sees no reason to apologize for anything. Even the patient and cautious efforts of Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela’s respectful treatment of his predecessor - a man who never would have permitted Mandela to come to power - were not sufficient to move the 84 year-old Botha to appear before the TRC. As a result Botha had to answer to a court of law and in August 1998 was sentenced to a fine of approximately 3000 DM or alternatively 12 months in prison.14

There were also difficulties of another nature with the amnesty process, namely the reaction of the victims and families of victims observing the hearings. For them it was particularly painful to bear when perpetrators spoke of crimes in an almost detached manner, without any trace of remorse or expression of regret. For some victims this experience opened new wounds in their already traumatized psyche. Also difficult was the fact that despite political promises there seemed to be no changes in the oppressive social and economic conditions. Many of the victims and victims’ families simply could not comprehend that some perpetrators received amnesty or could expect to receive amnesty in the future despite the enormity of their crimes because they willingly testified before the TRC and could assert that their actions were politically motivated.

5. Did the Truth and Reconciliation Commission accomplish its goal?

How is one to assess the situation in South Africa now shortly after the end of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s mandate? Was the TRC able to achieve the breakthrough needed to point South Africa towards a path out of its national trauma?15

The enormous gulf between a rich minority and a poor majority - a division no longer just along racial lines - does not allow the reconciliation process to make any headway. Already in 1985 theologians working on the Kairos Document pointed out emphatically that “without justice there can be no true reconciliation nor genuine peace. Any form of peace or reconciliation which allows the sins of injustice and oppression to continue means a false peace and a fake reconciliation.”16 The image of a “rainbow generation” is still more of a vision for the future than a recognizable current reality. For the most part the different population groups continue to live as they did formerly, separated according to skin color. Many of the victims and victims’ families members have forgiven the perpetrators. Others cannot forgive what has happened in the past, and certainly not those persons who have neither shown remorse nor acknowledged the wrongness of their actions.17

At any rate despite these shortcomings, the work of the TRC received so much recognition that already in September 1997 the decision was made to extend its mandate by three months until July 1998. The number of TRC members was also increased in 1997 from seven to nineteen in order to permit hearings to be conducted simultaneously in six different places in South Africa.18

The fact that there are still victims and perpetrators waiting mostly likely in vain for a hearing because the TRC had to submit its initial report by the end of October 1998 illustrates that the TRC has only partially achieved its goal and must continue its work in a follow-up phase. The search for truth and reconciliation was to bring together the splintered nation and lead to national reconciliation. This has been possible only to a certain extent. Still, victims and their families have had an opportunity to speak openly for the first time about their suffering and their horrible experiences during the apartheid era. They were listened to with respect and taken seriously; they did not have to be silent any longer in fear of further reprisals. As Archbishop Tutu remarked: “One was overwhelmed on one hand by the extent of evil, on the other hand by the courage of the so-called ‘ordinary folk’. They found their voice.”19

During the course of the TRC more and more crimes were brought to light. Many suspicions of crimes and atrocities were substantiated in a multitude of ways. New facts also came to light, for example, that South African scientists searched for substances that would render black South Africans infertile or passive. Unimaginable cruelty and crimes were revealed and left the observers speechless at times. Some witnesses broke down during their testimony. Even Archbishop Desmond Tutu often appeared deeply shaken by the seemingly unending descriptions of murder and torture.

Now, following all the public hearings in different places in South Africa, no one is able to claim any longer that atrocities carried out in the name of the South African apartheid regime were merely insinuations, lies or invented. The TRC confirmed that South Africa was a “murderous country” as aptly labeled in the German subtitle of Rian Malan’s uncompromisingly honest book My Traitor’s Heart and documented in his reports and research. 20

As Desmond Tutu stated: “Now South Africa knows what really took place. This knowledge is healing, just as is the discovery of the bodies of people who were killed and buried in an unknown location. From testimony of perpetrators we were able to locate and exhume many bodies so that families could bury the victims in a dignified manner. These family members now know what happened to their loved one(s) and this makes the situation somewhat easier to bear.”21

Crimes of former apartheid opponents - for example of members of the Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military arm of the ANC - also came to light. Particularly explosive was Winnie Mandela’s case, the former wife of South African president Nelson Mandela. Already several years before the political changes in the Cape region, reports were beginning to circulate with suspicions that Winnie Mandela had most likely participated in the murders of 14-year-old Stompie Seipei and Dr. Abu-Baker Asvat.22 Several accusations against her were brought before the TRC and were for the most part confirmed through the testimony of numerous witnesses. But Winnie Mandela reacted indignantly to these accusations and contested their legitimacy; she showed no sign of remorse and gave no convincing reaction when she was asked numerous times - lastly by her longtime companion in the struggle against the apartheid regime, none other than Archbishop Tutu - to show a sign of her readiness for reconciliation and to ask for forgiveness. The family of the 14-year-old Stompie was bitterly disappointed.

In this case and several others the TRC was not able to bring the whole truth to light. And some of the victim’s families were or are not ready to accept that, according to the principles of the TRC, in certain cases persons who had confessed to murder were able to leave the hearing without a penalty or having to make retribution.

In addition to working through events of the past, for the victims the question of compensation arose repeatedly. With the ever bleak economic situation in South Africa that has led to the failure of the ambitious reconstruction and development program, victims can expect only nominal economic compensation for their suffering, a symbolic gesture rather than real material assistance. Still, at least 22,000 persons are to receive such a recompense. In this context the efforts to achieve relief for South Africa from apartheid debts are noteworthy.

Today assessments of the work of the TRC vary greatly. Still, the TRC proved to be an appropriate tool for bringing the entire scope of the crimes of the apartheid era to light in order to contribute to comprehensive truth-finding on a national level. As such a basis for reconciliation has been created, though this is certainly not sufficient on its own as the road to national reconciliation appears to be lengthy. Additional methods and measures are needed in order to reconstruct a country with deep psychological and material wounds, to dismantle hate and mistrust between the different population groups, and to usher in a process of healing and reconciliation.

Given that the overwhelming majority of South Africa’s population comes from a Christian background, it is now necessary for the churches to take part in the truth-finding process, particularly in that which regards the instances where the churches, through overt support of the ideology of apartheid or through their silence or “hands-off” approach, either legitimized, or at the very least did not hinder, the injustice of the apartheid government. In order to regain credibility, particularly in that which concerns the present challenges facing the country, it is important that the churches recognize and publicly confess their own role and responsibility in the events of the apartheid era. This includes critical reflection regarding the churches’ theology and teaching which were not able to prevent persons who considered themselves practicing Christians from being capable of committing unimaginable crimes in the prisons and police and security forces, with the supposed intent of doing something good for the Church and their Christian faith.

Further the churches are increasingly faced with the task of supporting and walking alongside people in the reconciliation and healing processes that are now needed within South African society. A few churches and church groups have already begun such work, for example by holding seminars where victims and perpetrators can meet or by forming self-help groups for victims and their families to talk amongst themselves and thereby find the strength to deal with the trauma they have experienced.23

South Africa needs the involvement of volunteers in these processes, persons from outside the situation who have the trust of the different groups and who through their presence can create space to work through the experiences of the past and help to make possible a road to a less burdensome future.

6. Prerequisites for the reconciliation process

Reconciliation is a process requiring much time. Each person has his or her own unique point of departure; persons whose experiences of war and atrocities are still very recent are usually severely traumatized. They are not only suffering due to the loss of loved ones, their own horrific experiences or health problems. They suffer just as much from seeing that crimes that have been committed apparently have no consequences for the perpetrators; in other words it is not only the losses brought about by such crimes that cause trauma for the victims but also the inexplicable nature of the crime itself. Often the victims have neither the inner strength nor the clarity needed to be able to talk about the crimes that took place and the events leading up to them, let alone to speak about reconciliation or to involve themselves in a process of reconciliation.

Truth-finding is a prerequisite for reconciliation, working through what has taken place. Only then can an inner process of healing begin. As South African theologian Wolfram Kistner has experienced: “One must be made aware of things that are present in the subconscious. Victims and perpetrators need to meet and share their life stories...”24 Knowledge of the fate of family members who have disappeared or been killed and what has been done with their remains is a crucial part of this process. Reconciliation offers the opportunity to share the horrible things that one has experienced and this in a safe space, without the fear of reprisals and retaliatory violence by the perpetrators and those standing behind them.

Reconciliation demands of the perpetrators not only a clarification of crimes that remained unsolved and an admission that something has taken place and how it happened. Reconciliation also demands that perpetrators recognize their guilt and demonstrate credible remorse; without this, real and genuine reconciliation is not possible. Despite the knowledge gained about events in the past, speaking of atrocities in a matter-of-fact and detached manner and ducking responsibility for one’s actions by attributing them to events beyond one’s control or orders from a superior is burdensome and hurtful for victims and their loved ones.

But in this case the perpetrators are also ultimately prisoners of their actions - whether they wish to be or not, whether they are aware of this or not - and are unable to find their new place in the changed context in their country. The past will catch up with the perpetrators, at the very latest when the victims and their families confront them with it. And even if they confess their crimes, the perpetrators will have to live with the consequences of their actions as Dirk Coetzee, former commander of the secret base of operations Vlakplaas, admits now. In a statement in 1989 Coetzee spoke of “the existence of state-run murder squads; the electric shocks and wet sacks used to force people to make confessions; the drinking parties the murderers held to pass the time while the bodies of their victims lay burning beside them.”25 Coetzee was present at these nightly atrocities and today says: “I will have to carry these bodies around with me for the rest of my days”.26

For a process of reconciliation to even be initiated and be successful, a certain framework is necessary, for example an independently functioning but officially authorized and recognized truth commission. No less of a requirement is a clear aim: in the case of the TRC, the thorough examination of brutal secret operations, attacks and massacres. Naturally this includes as well the willingness to take appropriate political actions to ensure that such horrible events do not repeat themselves.

As far as anyone can judge, there are certain limits to the search by humans for truth and the striving for reconciliation. Reconciliation is inconceivable without the belief in the reconciling action of God and the cross as a symbol of this reconciliation. The cross is where God re-establishes his justice. This justice does not follow the logic of human perceptions of justice; it is justice which continually encourages people to forgive rather than losing themselves in the quest for punitive, retaliatory justice or “just” punishment. Without such divine intervention, reconciliation remains unattainable for humans. True reconciliation leads to just actions, actions born of the realization of one’s own guilt and experience of forgiveness. Wolfram Kistner also emphasizes this interrelation: “In Christ God reconciled the world, independent of whether people know about this reconciliation and accept it. [...] The universality of God’s reconciliation through Christ requires Christians to fight against and destroy structures in the Church and in society that work against God’s will.”27

If people reject this process of reconciliation, then they are in the end “doomed to repeat conflicts of the past and end up perishing together. In short, where there is no room for reconciliation there is no opportunity for new life and a new beginning” as former South African Council of Churches general secretary Brigalia Bam remarked. Further Bam states that “the most important lesson we are learning in South Africa through the work of the TRC is that reconciliation is not a luxury which the nations can opt for or do without.”28

This means, though, that all South Africans must face this process of reconciliation, even the large numbers of whites who, despite the fact that they profited from this system for decades and still number among the economic “haves” in society today, still do not wish to recognize that they share responsibility for the crimes of the apartheid era. Yazir Henry, former guerilla fighter with the Umkhonto weSizwe, feels that if these people do not work as well for reconciliation, then the entire future in South Africa is seriously endangered:

“20,000 people who testified before the TRC cannot carry the responsibility for the healing of 45 million people. We all need to do so. The TRC created the space for people to share their pain and suffering. But each one of us must contribute to healing.

Apartheid influenced each person. If we all wish to avoid another war, another ‘Bosnia’, then we must all assume responsibility. The problem is that the whites, on the whole, do not see the necessity of doing so. For them everything is okay. They complain the most but they come out on top in the reconciliation process. They have everything - economically, socially, politically - but they do not realize this. They have power and capabilities, but they continue to embrace this culture of entitlement and privilege. [...] If we don’t change, we will end up in a new war.” 29

The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission certainly did not fulfill all the expectations and hopes that people had of and for it. But it prevented the fire of epidemic proportions that threatened to break out, a fire which would have destroyed in a short period of time the new South Africa, the much-heralded “Rainbow Generation”, with unimaginable consequences for all of the South African population.



1. At this point no one suspected that secret discussions had be taking place for some time between the apartheid government and the most prominant political prisoner at the time Nelson Mandela, discussions which to a large extent made possible the political changes in South Africa at the beginning of the 1990s. See Allister Sparks, Tomorrow is Another Country: The Inside Story of South Africa’s Negotiated Revolution, Wynberg/Sandton, 1995.

2. See Jörg Fisch, Geschichte Südafrikas, Munich, 1991 and Allister Sparks, The Mind of South Africa: The Story of the Rise and Fall of Apartheid, London, 1994.

3. The people of Sharpeville homeland south of Johannesburg held a demonstration against the hated pass laws. Despite the peaceful nature of the demonstration, police opened fire on the demonstrators and killed 69 people. 180 were injured.

4. See Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 4 June 1998, pp 5.

5. See Die Sicherheitskräfte, de Klerk und der geheime Krieg: Soziale und politische Ursachen und Gewalt in Südafrika, Ev. Missionwerk in Deutschland (EMW), Hamburg, 1992.

6. Berger, Michele, Chris Hani (They Fought for Freedom), Maskew Miller Longmann, Cape Town, 1996.

7. See Südafrika - die Konflikte der Welt in einem Land, Kirchen - Anwälte für Gerechtigkeit und Versöhnung, with essays by Frank Chikane, Margaret Kelly, Wolfram Kistner, compiled and edited by Rudolf Hinz and Rainer Kiefer, essay 54, Hamburg, 1994.

8. From a report by Wolfram Kissner during a seminar on the process of reconciliation. The seminar took place on August 10-14, 1998 in Imshausen near Bebra, Germany, and was organised by Ecuemnical Service in Wethen.

9. See the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, submitted to President Nelson Mandela on 29 October 1998, (Last update: 8 November 1998), reprint of the Internet version available at the official Website; and Out of the Shadows: The Story of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Nolwazi Educational Publishers, Braamfontein, South Africa, 2000.

10. In ARD-Weltspiegel, 26 July 1998.

11. See the documentation “Ich möchte, daß sie um Verzeihung bitten: Täter und Opfer vor der Südafrikas Wahrheitskommission” in der überblick 3/99, pp. 23-26.

12. In Namibia, on the other hand, there has been no discernable interest by the government of President Sam Nujoma, former president of the Namibian independent organisation SWAPO (South-West Africa People’s Organisation), in a similar - and equally advisable - truth commission. Only the Namibian Council of Churches has made efforts to establish such a commission.

13. See Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 4 June 1998, pp. 5.

14. Ute Jugert, “Nach der Wahrheit die Versöhnung? in ai-journal, Heft 11/1998, pp. 9.

15. See Gaye Davis’ report “Zerstrittene Versöhner: Die Wahrheits- und Versöhnungskommission war ein Spiegelbild der gespaltenen Gesellschaft Südafrikas” in der überblick 3/99, pp. 27-31 and Charles Villa-Vincencio, “Wie viele der Verstockten kann man bestrafen” in a.a.O., pp. 32-33.

16. “The KAIROS Document...”, in Christen im Widerstand: Die Diskussion um das südafrikanische KAIROS Dokument, compiled and edited by Rudolf Hinz and Frank Kürschner-Pelkmann, essay 40, Stuttgart, 1987, pp. 20.

17. Theo Kneifel gives an initial critique and evaluation of developments in South Afrika since the first democratic elections in April 1994 in a publication from the Evangelischen Missionswerk in Deutschland (EMW) and missio entitled Zwischen Versöhnung und Gerechtigkeit: Der Spagat der Kirchen nach der Apartheid, Hamburg/Aachen, 1998.

18. Cape Argus, 19 September 1997.

19. In ARD-Weltspiegel, 26 July 1998.

20. See Rian Malan, Mein Verräter Herz: Mordland Südafrika, translated from the English, Hamburg, 1990.

21. Desmond Tutu in an interview with Stephan Kaussen in ai-journal, issue 11/1998, pp. 11.

22. See Fred Bridgland, Katizas Reise: Die wahre Geschichte der Winnie Mandela, with a preface by Emma Nicholson, from the English version by Karin Balzer and Grace Pampus, Reinbek bei Hamburg, 1997.

23. See Denise M. Ackermann, Wie Klage Wunden heilt: Öffentliches und rituelles Klagen ist zugleich spirituell und politisch, in der überblick 3/1999, pp. 18-22.

24. “Versöhnung durch Begegnung von Opfern und Tätern”. A discussion between Wolfram Kistner and Bettina von Clausewitz in Südafrika: Eine Länderinformation der Kindernothilfe, November 1995, pp. 14.

25. Der Spiegel 24/1998, pp. 156.

26. idem

27. “Die Arbeit der Abteilung Gerechtigkeit und Versöhnung” in Wolfram Kistner, Hoffnung in der Krise, Wuppertal, 1988, pp. 140.

28. “Reconciliation-the new struggle for life: Lessons and challenges from (South) Africa” in Reconciliation: gift of God, source of new life, Documents from the Second European Ecumenical Assembly in Graz. Verlag Styria, 1998, pp. 137-138.

29. Yazir Henry, quoted by Karin Chubb/Lutz van Dijk in Der Traum vom Regenbogen, pp. 201.



Christian Hohmann was born in Moers, Germany, on 14 September 1964. Following his theological studies in Wuppertal, Bonn and Bochum, he worked as vicar in Elberfeld-Nord and as assistant at the Lutheran Seminary in Wuppertal. He was ordained as a pastor in 1994. Mr. Hohmann has been employed as Church and Peace general secretary and Braunfels Church District peace, ecumenism and missions secretary since 1996.

Mr. Hohmann has visited southern Africa several times since 1993 and is exploring the relationship between white and black Lutheran churches in South Africa during the apartheid era. He is a member of the Rheinland Protestant Church Committee for Current Issues.


Theology and Peace Series

In English

1 - “The Gospel of Peace Revisited”, Marie-Noëlle von der Recke, May 1999, 16pp.

2 - “love Truth and Peace”, documentation from Church & Peace’s 50th anniversary symposium, August 1999, 24pp.

3 - “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit”, Ursula Windsor, October 1999, 12pp.

4 - “Truth-finding: a path to reconciliation?”, Christian Hohmann, July 2000, 36pp.




In French

1 - “Aimez la Paix et la Vérité”, Documents du symposium à l’occasion du 50ème anniversaire de Church & Peace, September 1999, 28pp.

2 - “Le pacifisme évangélique”, Neal Blough, December 1999, 20pp.

4 - “Chercher la vérité : un chemin vers la réconciliation ?” Travail de la Commission sud-africaine pour la Vérité et la Réconciliation, Christian Hohmann, June 2000, 32pp.

In German

1 - “Liebet Wahrheit und Frieden”, Dokumentation des Symposiums anläßlich des 50jährigen Church & Peace-Jubiläums, August 1999, 28pp.

2 - “Zur Bedeutung der Friedenskirchen für die Kirche in der Gegenwärtigen Situation”, Wolfgang Lienemann, October 1999, 28pp.

3 - “Dem Frieden ‘Raum’ geben”, Ein Beitrag zum 28. Deutschen Evangelischen Kirchentag, Silvia von Verschuer, December 1999, 24pp.

4 - “Wahrheitsfindung als Weg zur Versöhnung?”, Zur Arbeit der süd-afri-kanischen Wahrheits- und Versöhnungskommission, Christian Hohmann, May 2000, 32pp.

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