Truth and Reconciliation: The South African Experience. A paper presented at the civil society commemoration of the 2019 International Women’s Day in Zimbabwe

By Published On: 15th March 2019

Truth and Reconciliation: The South African Experience. A paper presented at the civil society commemoration of the 2019 International Women’s Day in Zimbabwe, by Webster Zambara (PhD), Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR), Cape Town, South Africa.


Thank you the National Transitional Justice Working Group (NTJWG) [We come from far working together] for providing me and the Institute that I work for to share our experience of the South African context and that of the many other countries across the continent where we work, and other global platforms that we engage with. The Institute for Justice & Reconciliation (IJR), emerged from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and continues to expound on the issues that emerged from the TRC process, and particularly for this meeting, gender is a cross-cutting theme in the Institute’s strategy and thematic programming.

Lessons from South Africa’s TRC

2018 marked the 20th anniversary of the submission of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report to ‘saint’ Mandela, South Arica’s founding father and global icon. The TRC as established under the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act of 1995. Chaired by Retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the patron of IJR.

The objectives of the Commission were to promote unity and reconciliation by:

Establishing as complete a picture as possible of the crimes, nature and extend of gross human rights violations which were committed during the period 01 March 1960 to the cut  of date (1990), including the antecedents, circumstances, factors and context of such violations, as well as perspectives of the victims and the motives and perspectives of the persons responsible for the commission of violations, by conducting investigations and holding hearings; facilitating the granting of amnesty to persons who make full disclosure of all the relevant facts relating to acts associated to a political objective and comply with the requirements of this Act[1]

The Commission had a limited lifespan of only TWO YEARS!

Commission’s work was divided into 3 Committees

  1. The Human Rights Violations Committee – responsible for hearing statements from victims of human rights abuses and judging whether the violations were the result of “deliberate planning by the state or another organisation, group or individual” N/B 21 292 statements were made, and those identified 9or that were seen to qualify as it were) were referred to the Reparations and Rehabilitation Committee
  2. The Reparations and Rehabilitation Committee – worked to ‘restore victim’s dignity’ and to make recommendations to President Mandela’s government in regards to ‘rehabilitation, and healing of survivors, their families and community at large’
  3. The Amnesty Committee – responsible to consider applications for amnesty in accordance with the Act – which stated that amnesty would only be granted in return for full-disclosure of crimes committed with a political motive. N/B 7,112 amnesty applications were submitted to the TRC. Only 849 pardons were granted. Some were rejected on the basis that crimes were not considered political or there were not enough facts associated with the disclosure.

The Big Gap – No specific gender committee to focus on issues affecting women and girls. The violations perpetrated upon women were simply not prioritised to the extent that the large number of women who gave testimonies at the hearings, more often than not, mainly relayed the tragedies that affected their male relatives – husbands and sons – while keeping silent about their own abuses. Many factors, including culture, lack of protection and the pressure on family life were prohibitive to the case of women in South Africa. In other words, the TRC was such gender blind that it did not do justice to the women and girls who were victims of the apartheid era.

Even though the submission form tried to open up the case of female victims by stating;

IMPORTANT: Some women testify about violations that happened to family members or friends, but they have also suffered abuses. Don’t forget to tell us what happened to you yourself if you were the victims of a gross human rights abuse[2]

The commission considered rape and sexual assault as human rights violations. BUT: No conducive environment was created timely. The hearings were public, aired on national radio and shown on television! Also, other abuses such a failure to provide sanitary towels, making them undress in front of warders and body searches by men were not considered as violations then.

BUT: Let’s also acknowledge the timing of the TRC regarding gender justice, to the effect that one would understand that the current understanding of gender justice, peace and security was much in its infancy. If the TRC would take place in SA today, I would bet my last dime, gender justice would be its cornerstone!

Across the globe, women’s demands for accountability for violations and abuses have gained momentum, greater attention and consequence than ever before.

We can trace recent watershed moments for gender equality as follows:

  • Starting with the Beijing Conference (Platform for Action) in 1995 – a quarter of a century ago, which seems very long, but 25 years is only 1 generation, and so much has been achieved, yet so much still needs to be done, especially in our deeply patriarchal societies in the global south.
  • For us in the peace, security and development community, UNSCR 1325 of 2000 is another landmark as it affirms that peace and security efforts are more sustainable when women are equal partners in the prevention of violent conflict, the delivery of relief and recover efforts, and in the forging of lasting peace.
  • A series of subsequent Resolutions have since followed, including;
  • SCR 1820 passed in 2008, it recognises that conflict-related sexual violence is a tactic of warfare and call for the training of troops on preventing and responding to sexual violence, deployment of more women to peace operations, and enforcement of zero-tolerance policies for peacekeepers with regards to acts of sexual exploitation or abuse.
  • SCR 1888 passed in 2009 and strengthens the implementation of Resolution 1820 by calling for leadership to address conflict-related sexual violence, deployment of teams (military and gender experts) to critical conflict areas, and improved monitoring and reporting on conflict trends and perpetrators.
  • SCR 1889 passed in 2009 addresses obstacles to women participation in peace processes and calls for development of global indicators to track the implementation of Resolution 1325, and improvement of international and national responses to the needs of women in conflict and post-conflict settings
  • SCR 1960 passed in 2010 and calls for an end to sexual violence in armed conflict, particularly against women and girls, and provides measures aimed at ending impunity for perpetrators of sexual violence, including through sanctions and reporting measures.
  • SCR 2016 passed in 2013 provides operational guidance on addressing sexual violence and calls for the further deployment of Women Protection Advisers
  • SCR 2122 passed in 2013 and calls for all parties to peace-talks to facilitate equal and full participation of women in decision-making; aims to increase women participation in peace-making by increasing resources for women in conflict zones; acknowledges the critical contribution of women civil society organisations.
  • SCR 2242 passed in 2015, marking the 15th anniversary and reaffirms commitment to Resolution 1325, highlights the role of women in countering violent extremism, and addressing the differential impact of terrorism on the human rights of women and girls.

Now even the African Union has adopted the Transitional Justice Policy that is alive to the gendered dimensions of conflict (thanks to our cousins CSVR for spearheading this civil society drive for almost a decade). The task for local SCOs is to operationalise it and use it as a guide and resource to inform a national frameworks that will support the fledgling National Peace and Reconciliation Commission to fulfil its constitutional mandate.

Some challenges and some lessons to recall

  • Put mildly, the TRC was gender blind. Many victims will never exonerate the commission for this act of omission.
  • Destruction of records and documents by the apartheid regime (a common practice in such circumstances) – both officially and unofficially – meant some truths and evidence could never be recovered.
  • No formal institutional structure to follow on the work and lack of political will to ensure recommendations of the TRC are implemented has left this task to NGOs who are often underfunded
  • There is no reconciliation in poverty – the structure and culture of the apartheid system, oiled by blatant racism has continued to expose South Africa’s many contradictions and fault-lines that are widening.
  • Ignorance of the need to focus on trauma, mental health and psycho-social support. There was general failure to understand, acknowledge and address the impact of apartheid on the psycho-social wellbeing of South Africans. No counselling was offered to those that had testified, no matter how horrendous their stories were (IJR is privileged to be among leaders in global research on the link between mental health and peacebuilding)

National and global context: Key Issues[3]

  • Patriarchal systems and persistent gender inequality
  • The changing nature of contemporary conflict
  • Shrinking political space & threats against women, women’s human rights defenders & women in leadership positions
  • Funding challenges & investment in gender expertise
  • Limited recognition for women’s expertise & lived experience
  • Tensions between transformative & technocratic approaches
  • Knowledge gaps


  • Harnessing political will & eliminating structural blockages
  • Embedding gender-sensitive conflict analysis as standard practice
  • Supporting national and local ownership
  • Securing gender sensitive agreements & monitoring and implementation mechanisms


As we commemorate International Women’s Day under the global theme: Think Equal, Build Smart, Innovate for Change, as well as the national theme: Sustainable Infrastructure and Access to Public Services for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women [and girls, own addition], let us strive for a national commitment to promoting peaceful, just and inclusive societies and access to justice for all (SDG 16) and commitment to gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls (SDG 5)

Now the world has changed, and the awareness levels have reached levels where women and girls, with the right support, can rise and fight for and defend their rights innovatively. The #MeToo Movement has seen the once untouchables now facing justice – Bill Cosby, R Kelly. Information technology is now helping us to know what would have taken ages to know, such that even internet has become a threat to those that abuse people, especially women. (Babes Wodumo used Instagram to expose her abuse by Mamphintsha). In all these we see innovation at work.

N/B Let not the current calls for national dialogue be gender blind again. Women and girls should be at the centre of any political processes that will impact on their lives. As the old dictum goes: Nothing for us without us!

Much more will be achieved if we are smarter, innovative and ready to change for the better. It is in our hands!

‘As long as a nation refuses to acknowledge the equal role of more than half of itself, it is doomed to failure’ – Nelson Mandela, 1996

Today it is #CelebrateWomen

Today it is # PembereraiMadzimai

Today it is #ThakazelelaAbomama

Tell me how you treat your women and girls, and I tell you how progressive you are!

Siyabonga!!!! Tatenda!!!! Thank you!!!!

[1] See Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa Report, 1:55

[2] See Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa Report, 5:294

[3] See United Nations Women (UNWomen), Women’s meaningful participation in negotiating peace and the implementation of peace agreements: Report of the Expert Group meeting (2018).

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