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October 29 1998: After 2 years of hearings, South African Truth & Reconciliation Commission released report

Led by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the South African Truth & Reconciliation Commission held nineteen public hearings. These hearings allowed for the open exploration of human rights abuses and other violence that took place during Apartheid. Apartheid was “evil, inhumane and degrading for the many millions who became its second and third class citizens. Amongst its many crimes, perhaps the greatest was its power to humiliate, to denigrate and to remove the self-confidence, self-esteem and dignity of its millions of victims.”

Explore Archbishop Tutu’s thoughts on “How to Win a Nobel Peace Prize” from Truth Bomb Trails.

The goal of the commission was about visibility, citizenship, acknowledgement, responsibility, accountability and, ultimately, “the creation of a new South African society.” In the Tutu’s estimation, reconciliation rests on truth.
Reconciliation is not about being cosy; it is not about pretending that things were other than they were. Reconciliation based on falsehood, on not facing up to reality, is not true reconciliation and will not last. […] The truth can be, and often is, divisive. However, it is only on the basis of truth that true reconciliation can take place. True reconciliation is not easy; it is not cheap.

The Commission sought to identify “four notions of truth: factual or forensic truth; personal or narrative truth; social or ‘dialogue’ truth and healing and restorative truth.”

Factual or forensic truth

Two essential areas of factual truth, individual and broader social “contexts, causes and patterns of violations.” For the former, the focus is on “what happened to whom, where, when and how, and who was involved?” For the wider scope, historian Michael Ignatieff explains: “All that a truth commission can achieve is to reduce the number of lies that can be circulated unchallenged in public discourse.”

Personal and narrative truth

This truth relies on the “healing potential” and capacity of storytelling. Oral tradition provides insight into the values a community holds. As the Commission report states, allowing:

[…] Victims tell[ing] their own stories in their own languages, […] not only helped to uncover existing facts about past abuses, but also assisted in the creation of a ‘narrative truth’. In so doing, it also sought to contribute to the process of reconciliation by ensuring that the truth about the past included the validation of the individual subjective experiences of people who had previously been silenced or voiceless, [including] the widest possible record of people’s perceptions, stories, myths and experiences.

Social truth

Social truth is “the truth of experience that is established through interaction, discussion and debate,” also considered dialogue truth by the Commission. The pursuit of social or dialogue truth is founded on the “essential norms of social relations between people” and that “dialogue and respect” promote “transparency, democracy and participation in society […] as a basis for affirming human dignity and integrity.” All parties were able to share their experience.

Healing and restorative truth

Described as “the kind of truth that places facts and what they mean within the context of human relationships – both amongst citizens and between the state and its citizens.” Healing and restorative truth relies on the concept of acknowledgement.

It is not merely the actual knowledge about past human rights violations that counts; often the basic facts about what happened are already known, at least by those who were affected. What is critical is that these facts be fully and publicly acknowledge. Acknowledgement is an affirmation that a person’s pain is real and worth of attention. It is thus central to the restoration of the dignity of victims.