To what extent do truth commissions deliver justice to the victims of violence in Africa?

Published: 2023/07/04 Number of words: 1377

Truth and Reconciliation Commissions (TRC) are part of a spectrum of available mechanisms of enforcing transitional justice from past atrocities to rebuilding new nations following mass violence. TRCs have been used widely in African countries following periods of mass violence as a result of past oppressive regimes. This essay will specifically focus on the South African TRC enforced following the formal end of the apartheid regime upon the election of the Nelson Mandela of the African National Congress (ANC). The essay will argue that the TRC has failed to provide meaningful justice to victims by highlighting the internal failings of the TRC and its impact on limited justice for victims of apartheid.

Contextualising the TRC:

The South African approach to transitional justice was born out of its unique political context wherein the formal end of apartheid did not mean a complete victory for the ANC. Instead, the liberation party had to adjust to the political constraints as the apartheid party (national party) was still in a position to politically bargain with the ANC over transitional settlements (Mamdani, 2014, p.62). This meant that the ANC could not tactically afford to implement a Nuremberg model of transitional justice centred primarily on criminal retribution in the form of punishment for the crimes committed under apartheid. Instead, with the National party still at the negotiating table, the ANC had to provide mechanisms of transitional justice which reconciled both the needs of the victims of apartheid who had endured mass violence at the hands of systematic racial oppression and the actual perpetrators who could not possibly be oust from society (Mamdani 2014, Ntsebeza et al, 2004). Thus, the new post-apartheid government faced the difficult task of providing justice for victims of apartheid but in a way as to promote national unity and the message of co-existence rather than through avenging victims via mass prosecution.

The south African TRC was considered the most important mechanism of providing this restorative justice to victims. The TRC was thus created with three subsequent committees. Amongst them were the victim hearing committee, the reparations committee and the amnesty committee. Only the amnesty committee, of the three was given legislative powers to grant perpetrators amnesty on the conditions that they disclose all details of their crimes in front of their victims.

TRC’s restorative justice:

One may argue against the argument of this essay by stating that according to the political context of a fragile post-apartheid South Africa, the TRC provided the best available justice to victims of oppressive state violence (Ntsebeza et al, 2004). This is a plausible argument as there are positive aspects of the TRC in their approach of achieving restorative justice for victims. For example, Du Toit (2000) argues that the moral foundation upon which the TRC were established were successful in providing reconciliation and justice to victims despite not doing so in a retributive sense. Indeed, the restorative approach that the TRC was based on cannot simply be discounted by virtue of its non-conformance to traditional theories of justice. So, the argument that the TRC did provide effective justice for victims of apartheid within the context, is worth exploring.

However, while the TRC in its truth as acknowledgement approach was able to provide some justice to victims of apartheid through formally acknowledging their stories, it is not the case that this cathartic function of healing extended to all victims who were heard by the TRC (Clark, 2012). Instead, the trauma centre for victims of violence and torture in Cape Town estimated that around 50-60% of victims who provided testimonies to the TRC actually suffered from psychological trauma as they had to recollect intricate details of the horrific crimes they endured (Clark, 2012, p.194). This suggests that the argument of TRC as necessarily empowering victims through allowing them to narrate their own stories bypasses the negative impact that most victims endured as a result of having to portray their stories to the TRC. Thus, it can be seen that the TRC was internally limited in providing justice for victims of apartheid as it could not accommodate the psychological and well-being needs of those who testified in the victim hearings (Clark, 2012).

Nonetheless, it may be argued against this essay that, while the TRC could not provide restorative justice to victims through accommodating their psychological needs, the commission was able to do so by compensating victims through its recommendations of reparations to victims of apartheid (Fernandez, 2009). According to the TRC’s reparation committee, for meaningful justice to follow for victims of apartheid, the state needed to go beyond listening to the victims’ stories and granting amnesties to perpetrators for full disclosure. It needed to also compensate victims for their suffering.

However, the reparations’ recommendations of the TRC were largely ignored by the government following the conclusion of the TRC’s operations. The TRC recommended that the government issue payments to victims over a timeframe of 6 years; yet, the government largely bypassed this and started in the 2000’s to pay one-off sums to victims eligible for reparations (Fernandez, 2009, p.217).

One may argue that the fact that the state was able to provide even a limited amount of money to victims, this nonetheless shows that the TRC’s reparations’ recommendations succeeded in providing compensation to victims, even if the compensation was not a large amount.

However, this fails to acknowledge the brutal fact that the TRC’s reparations committee, as merely an advisory body, was unable to fulfil the justice needs of victims. As a result of having endured extreme violence, the victims had demanded government compensation, but one-off payments simply cannot provide meaningful compensation to victims. Instead, the TRC acknowledged that this would require payments to be paid across time by the government to ensure that people were given the necessary economic assistance to rebuild their lives following apartheid (Clark 2012, Fernandes 2009). Thus, the limited powers of the TRC meant that without the backing of the government, this policy could not be enforced to provide effective long-term justice for victims in the form of financial aid.

In conclusion, this essay has argued TRC’s on their own cannot provide full justice for victims of mass atrocities. The essay focused on the South African TRC to argue that the justice venture for victims of apartheid has been left unfinished as deep disparities between the historically oppressed and the historical oppressors remain even after the transition from apartheid.


  • Clark, J., 2012. Reconciliation via Truth? A Study of South Africa’s TRC.Journal of Human Rights, 11(2), pp.189-209.
  • Du toit, A. 2000. The Moral Foundations of the South African TRC: TRUTH AS ACKNOWLEDGMENT AND JUSTICE AS RECOGNITION. In: Rotberg, R.I & Thompson, D eds. Truth v Justice: The Morality of Truth Commissions. US: Princeton University Press, pp. 122-139.
  • Evans, M., 2015. Structural Violence, Socioeconomic Rights, and Transformative Justice.Journal of Human Rights, 15(1), pp.1-20.
  • Fernandez, L., 2009. Reparations policy in South Africa for the victims of apartheid. law democracy and development. pp. 209-222.
  • Gerhart, G., Bell, T. and Ntsebeza, D., 2004. Unfinished Business: South Africa, Apartheid, and Truth.Foreign Affairs, 83(3), p.157.
  • Kepe, T., Saruchera, M. and Whande, W., 2004. Poverty alleviation and biodiversity conservation: a South African perspective.Oryx, 38(2), pp.143-145.
  • Mamdani, M., 2014. Beyond Nuremberg. Politics & Society, 43(1), pp.61-88.
  • D.M & Swails. B.S. 2018. Land was stolen under apartheid. It still hasn’t been given back. CNN. [Online]. [20th May 2020]. Retrieved from:
  • Minev, N., 2008. “The Chilean and South African Truth Commissions: A Comparative Assessment”. Undergraduate Library Research Award. 3.pp.1-56.
  • Pereira, L., 2014. The role of substantive equality in finding sustainable development pathways in South Africa. McGill international journal of Sustainable Development, law and policy, 10(2), pp.149-178.
  • Pettersson, H.P. 2019. South Africa is the worlds most unequal country. 25 years of freedom have failed to bridge the divide. CNN. [Online]. [15th May 2020]. Retrieved from:
  • The world bank. 2018. Overcoming Poverty and Inequality in South Africa. An assessment of drivers, constraints and opportunities.

Cite this page

Choose cite format:
Online Chat Messenger Email
+44 800 520 0055