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Obituary: Desmond Tutu and South Africa’s quest for truth and reconciliation

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On Monday, December 26th, 2021, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, South Africa’s beacon of reconciliation and morality, passed away. Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, Desmond Tutu was a key figure in paving South Africa’s way towards democracy and equality after the fall of the Apartheid Regime in 1994.

Some of Archbishop Tutu’s most remarkable achievements for South Africa can be found during his time at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to which he was appointed chairman by President Nelson Mandela.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was implemented as a judicial body in 1995 by the new South African government under Nelson Mandela. Its objective was to publicly disclose the myriads of severe violations of human rights during the apartheid era between 1960 and 1994. Reinventing the practice of dealing with a nation’s past through its quest for truth and factuality rather than criminal prosecution, the TRC greatly distinguished itself from other post-conflict tribunals. Unlike the Nürnberg Trials after World War II, imposing the death penalty in several cases for officials of the Nazi Regime, the South African TRC did not endeavor to condemn the deeds of convicted criminals, but to encourage a dialogue between both victims and perpetrators. Its hitherto unprecedented practice of holding public hearings with both parties was internationally acclaimed for its participatory nature of reconciliation.

Despite the widespread praise the TRC won, it faced great challenges from the very beginning. At the time of its establishment, two opposing views prevailed in public debate shaping the country’s transition towards democracy and racial equality: Those affiliated with the fallen regime demanded a blanket or a general amnesty, while many of its victims and the liberation movements expected severe punishment of the gross violations of human rights. How would it be possible to reconcile the conflicting parties? Dividing questions on accountability as opposed to impunity and the perseverance of the Rule of Law were posed. 

How do we forgive if not by punishing each other?

In the spirit of reciprocal reconciliation and participation, the Commission was empowered to grant amnesty to convicted perpetrators who truly confessed their deeds, delineating every detail of the crimes they committed in presence of their victims’ families and friends: Thus, a comprehensive and publicly disclosed confession and a clear former political motivation in exchange for freedom from prosecution. A compromise between blanket amnesty and retribution was established.

But how do we forgive, many asked, if not by punishing each other? The Commission clearly emphasised the principle of verity. Confessing the truth, acknowledging, respecting, and recognising South Africa’s grievances were believed to uphold the legacy of the victims of apartheid, to give dignity to the millions of oppressed; not least, to allow them to find closure.

In this vein, many perpetrators were asked by the mourning party to describe in precise detail how their beloved died to achieve full remembrance, to deeply ingrain their passing in South Africa’s history. And by offering a platform for testimony, the TRC allowed victims to tell their personal stories, to feel heard, not only within the South African society but also on the international landscape. Confessions served as deterrence as well as a living memorial of the dark chapters of South Africa’s history. As Desmond Tutu explained in the context of the testimonies, “you are overwhelmed by the extent of evil”. But the nation’s wounds had to be opened in order to be bound again.

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Desmond Tutu’s philosophy of reconciliation

Archbishop Tutu was in favour of establishing restorative justice rather than seeking retribution. Yet, the stance he adopted towards the matter of national collective guilt was regarded as controversial by some: He was indeed convinced that both the white supremacist minority and the oppressed black majority descended into inhumanity; that apartheid had a dehumanising effect on the totality of society which made amnesty, the most forgiving form of reconciliation, inevitable.

As he phrased it, granting amnesty enabled both parties in society to “link arms” – the very opposite of antagonising perpetrators and pointing a finger at the guilty: it restored an equilibrium between the oppressors and the oppressed, consisting of mutual empathy and understanding.

The price of apartheid

Yet could such equilibrium be balanced if most of apartheid’s injustices resulted from the deliberate government policy of a white minority ruling class? Further, as statistics revealed, the vast majority of the 21,000 people who died in political violence in South Africa during apartheid from 1948 to 1994 were black and yet 80% of the amnesty applicants were people of colour too. Not only did black South Africans claim fewer lives than the white majority, they also more frequently sought reconciliation. Thus, was reconciliation truly reciprocal?

Despite these critics, Desmond Tutu never ceased preaching the virtue of forgiveness: A decade before the inauguration of the TRC, during the award ceremony for his Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, the archbishop addressed what he named the “price of apartheid”.

That is, “In dehumanizing others, they are themselves dehumanized. Perhaps oppression dehumanizes the oppressor as much as, if not more than, the oppressed. They need each other to become truly free, to become human. We can be human only in fellowship, […] in peace.” In this vein, Desmond Tutu posited that the dialogue between the oppressor and oppressed initiated a process of liberation for the entirety of South Africa. It seems that, for Desmond Tutu, national conscience, that is, guilt and shame, had to be eased and overcome collectively, although the white minority incontrovertibly was the predominant perpetrator in the myriads of human rights abuses. And in effect, the idea of emerging from a dehumanised state of nature to a just and equal society in togetherness was promising to re-establish a sense of unity. For the archbishop, justice was a necessary condition for peace, and in this sense, social cohesion.

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Truth and reconciliation all seemed promising to the victims of apartheid. But how just was the TRC’s vocation considered by the oppressed? Sensations of vengeance and retribution, or at least desired criminal prosecution, provided a stark contrast to the archbishop’s understanding of justice.

The price of reconciliation

While the principle of verity should not be undermined, neither should the implications of forgiveness: The Commission never legally required a sincere apology, nor a public expression of remorse of the perpetrators to be “forgiven”. Asking for pardon was not mandatory. As The Economist wrote in 1997 (“Of memory and forgiveness”), the “price of peace is amnesty, and the price of amnesty is not an apology but the “truth”. […] The torturer walks free; the victim is expected to forgive. Not everybody can stomach this.” Naturally, for the black oppressed majority, this path of reconciliation was demanding.

More controversially, a large part of the criminal prosecutions of those who did not apply for or never were granted amnesty were not conducted rigorously enough. Hence many victims felt disillusioned, even deceived by the TRC. The collective process of reconciliation was undermined by sensations of impunity, and thus of continuity of the apartheid era. Indeed, for many, the Rule of Law did not prevail as many were not held accountable for their unforgettable crimes.

Thus, as opposed to Archbishop Tutu’s views, the detailed accounts of apartheid’s horrors may have not bound the wounds, but rather provoked the very opposite. After the 2,500 amnesty hearings during which perpetrators had to confess their deeds in the greatest depths, such as murder and torture, the past will not have been accepted nor forgiven the instant the hearings ended. Certain processes of closure, forgiveness and reconciliation may have been initiated. At first, however, grievance, sensations of anger, vengeance and other emotions – which hitherto had begun to abate – witnessed an outburst.

A participatory non-participative reconciliation

Further controversies arose when the TRC began the hearings. While the initiated reconciliation process was intended to be participatory, both high-ranking military officials and senior politicians of the former governments were reluctant to cooperate, just as were the members of the antagonist liberation movements who claimed to be acting in the name of justice.

Not seldom, white subjects to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission alleged that they had been openly defamed during the hearings through their confessions – although the institution promised reconciliation and peace. Indeed, many white perpetrators preferred not applying for amnesty, being deterred from deep humiliation and supposed threats of vengeance by the opposing party. 

The appearance of the Commission as a biased institution, favouring black citizens, was also reinforced by the political connections its members openly had to the African National Congress (ANC): 15 of the 17 members were part of the former organised political opposition, the ANC, during the apartheid regime. For some, this undermined the institution’s integrity and entire vocation.

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Another issue, as Desmond Tutu acknowledged himself, was the omission of the economies of apartheid during the reconciliation process. Rather than shedding light on the collective crime of the society that benefited from systemic racial discrimination, critics argued, the TRC merely exposed a few shameful “trigger-pullers”, thus placing the burden of South Africa’s past on them. Others were not confronted with their responsibility as they should have. As Tutu asserted, the relation between organised white supremacy and undisclosed racialised privilege – apartheid’s economic system – had never been rescued from obscurity.

Desmond Tutu’s enduring spirit

In hindsight, further issues of overdue reparations and the Commission’s final reports were subjected to public debate. But regardless of the many difficulties it faced; born in the spirit of a novel era, the TRC succeeded in accompanying South Africa’s democratisation; that is, the first truly democratic elections and the enactment of the South African Constitution and its Bill of Rights in 1996 under the government of President Nelson Mandela.

Following the doctrine of learning lessons from the past, “human dignity, the achievement of equality and the advancement of human rights and freedoms” (Chapter 1, first paragraph, Constitution of the Republic of South Africa) were secured as the new republican values henceforth defining the state, as though a rectification of the past had occurred.

Thus, while the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s vocation may have been perceived as idealistic or problematic by some, it certainly prompted a deliberation process within the South African society – a necessary solemn contemplation to enter a new democratic age and build resilience. In terms of post-conflict or -regime matters, the legacy of Desmond Tutu’s spirit remained vibrant; that there is no peace until there is justice.

Author profile
Chief Editor

I am a Franco-German first-year student in the BIEM program. I am passionate about European politics, history, and classical music.

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