Establishing the Truth about the Apartheid Past: Historians and the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission

by Jacobus A. du Pisani and Kwang-Su Kim


The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was mandated to establish “the truth” about the causes, nature and extent of gross violations of human rights in the country between 1960 and 1994. This article assesses the significance of the TRC for historians and the writing of history in South Africa. There is no doubt that the TRC had shortcomings. Its coverage of human rights violations was uneven. Those who testified at public hearings did not constitute a representative sample of the South African population. The truthfulness of their subjective testimonies was not properly verified. A discursive framework, reinforcing the TRC discourse of reconciliation, was imposed on participants. Because the socio-economic context of human rights violations was neglected, analysis of causation was shallow. The way in which the outcomes of the TRC have been handled by the government seems to endorse Derrida’s suggestion that it might become an exercise in forgetting. Despite these shortcomings, the significant contributions of the TRC towards producing a new archive of previously repressed histories, from which a fuller truth about the past could emerge, cannot be denied. Particularly important was the re-enactment of past events by victims and perpetrators of human rights violations at the much-publicised public hearings of the TRC, which helped to democratise memory and give history a public face. Interest in the value of history to address current problems was revived. It is the main objective of this article to reflect upon the tasks of historians after the TRC. Historians are committed to the never ending debate of history and not to the type of closure sought by priests and politicians. They have an important task to attend to the unfinished business of the TRC and to resist denial or erasure. Through the critical study, interpretation, and narration of the facts from the TRC archive, historians have to establish what really happened and why it happened, thus rendering a service to science and the nation.

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Jacobus du Pisani is Professor of History at North-West University in Potchefstroom , South Africa. His long-term interest is contemporary South African political history, but he has specialised in recent years in masculinities studies and environmental history.

Kwang-Su Kim is an Africanist employed by Seoul National University and Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in the Republic of Korea. He worked on historical consciousness in South Africa and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. His current project deals with oral histories in Africa.