26 October 2016

The compromise of reconciliation: an intern reflects on the challenges of the TRC

Spring School

The South African History Archive (SAHA) hosted a number of history educators at the ‘SAHA in the Classroom Spring School’. One of the aims of the Spring School was to draw on the archive of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to discuss issues of reconciliation in the South African context. As an intern on SAHA’s Freedom of Information Programme (FOIP) I got to sit in on part of the training that was focused on teaching about the TRC. This is because a big part of FOIP’s work is using the Promotion of Access to Information Act, 2000 (PAIA) to gain access to records in the TRC archive.

Amnesty for truth

The TRC experienced many obstacles in trying to promote reconciliation between previously opposing groups through truth-telling. Sitting in the training, I questioned the compromise between seeking truth for the victims of apartheid and the granting of amnesty to perpetrators in exchange. It seems that while some people are able to forgive without sensing any remorse from the perpetrator, others are not able to do the same effectively.  People that have managed to forgive even without expecting remorse from the perpetrator may regard the TRC as a big success. However, for victims that struggle to forgive where there has not been real remorse shown, the amnesty process may not have necessitated completeness in reconciliation.

Access to information requests for TRC Records

This leads me to wonder how much truth the TRC was able to recover. The TRC built up a large archive of records that it intended to be publicly accessible, and SAHA has over the years tested the accessibility of the TRC archive through the use of PAIA. Records released to FOIP in terms of PAIA requests are hosted in the Freedom of Information Programme Collection in SAHA’s archive.

In trying to access TRC files SAHA has encountered a culture of secrecy, not unlike that of the apartheid regime, within the intelligence, and some other, agencies of the democratic era – this is clear from Chapter 2 of SAHA's publication "Paper Wars". This chapter provides more insight into SAHA's struggle to gain access to TRC records using PAIA. Through the perseverance of SAHA, sometimes through protracted legal battles, SAHA has facilitated the process to access and make public some of the TRC records in the national archives. One prominent example is the settlement this year, 10 years after SAHA first attempted to gain access thereto through PAIA, of litigation related to the release of the TRC Victims Database to SAHA. However, the surviving culture of secrecy remains an obstacle to transparency and the right to access information.

The battle against forgetting 

The SAHA publication “The Battle against Forgetting: Human Rights and the Unfinished Business of the TRC” notes that many victims of apartheid remain despondent. These victims are particularly dispondent where there has been impunity rather than accountability for the architects of apartheid. It looks to me like there is still much unfinished business coming out of the TRC and there is much work to be done in the achievement of reconciliation. 

Despite the fact that the Commission did not in fact bring about true and complete reconciliation it did shed light on some of the atrocities of the past with the purpose of restoring the nation. I hope that this will be one of the lessons that the young learners will take from their educators.

Read more about SAHA's in the Classroom Spring School here

View SAHA's Freedom of Information Programme Collection here

View SAHA's Paper Wars publication here

View SAHA's The Battle against Forgetting: Human Rights and the Unfinished Business of the TRC publication here

View the TRC Victims Database released by the Department of Justice here