DAY 5: Lilieslief


Is truth enough?

On a sunny Sunday morning on the outskirts of Johannesburg I took part in a workshop at Lilieslief with a group of students and staff from Monash University. The workshop focused generally on the merits, shortfalls and legal processes associated with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) that took place in the years immediately after the fall of the Apartheid regime in South Africa, and clearly focused the groups attention on addressing a question I have been asking myself since we first arrived here: is truth enough?

As part of the workshop we were given seven words and asked to place them in the order that we thought would enable us to achieve reconciliation after suffering an imagined and/or theoretical injustice. These words were: Revenge, retribution, justice, truth, forgiveness, remorse and reconciliation. However after heated debates had taken place amongst ourselves we came to the conclusion that reconciliation is a messy and deeply personal process, and we all accepted that individually we required different steps before we could theoretically come to terms with reconciling with the party who had wronged us. Yet once we had reached this conclusion, deciding that some of us needed all seven words, while some of us only required a selection of them, we were abruptly forced to reenter the reality of the South African situation – the TRC allowed room for only two of those seven words: truth and reconciliation. And therein lies the problem many people – both from South Africa and abroad – seem to have with the TRC.

Personally I can not comprehend being asked to reconcile with the murderer of my child, the rapist of my mother, sister or wife, the torturer of myself, my friend or family member simply because they sat in a court room and confessed their crimes in the hope of obtaining a free pass. I don’t know if you could find it in yourself either. Although I do have to acknowledge the power invested in truth… I can see how knowing what really happened, finding the long lost body of a loved one and giving it a proper burial for instance, could be ‘enough’ for some people, especially if they had previously had no hope of closure, no hope of receiving any form of justice.

 But perhaps our group was looking at this question the wrong way. Perhaps we should not have been imaging our personal pain and path to reconciliation. Perhaps we needed to look at the bigger picture. I would argue that the true purpose of the TRC was not to achieve individual reconciliations at all, but instead to achieve one great national one. This conclusion was inspired by what currently lies right in front of me: in the departure hall of the OR Tambo airport there is an old African proverb written on the wall which says “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Maybe what this is saying is that what is important to the South African nation post-Apartheid is not individual truths or individual reconciliations but the adoption of national narratives of truth and the official sponsorship of reconciliation. And perhaps for that purpose truth is enough?


Throughout South Africa I have witnessed the invasive, totalitarian, bureaucratic and centralised nature of the apartheid regime. The discriminatory, violent and oppressive practices against 40 million people conflicts with the ideal role of governments: to protect the fundamental rights and freedoms of its citizens. Apartheid leaves a legacy of concerning socio-political and socio-economic characteristics which conflict with reconciliation efforts. This raises the question as to whether reconciliation can be achieved?

 Today marked the 50th anniversary of the arrest of Nelson Mandela and fellow liberation leaders at Lilliesleaf. During a meeting, the Director of the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre led a conceptual exercise to assist in understanding the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), including the advantages and short-comings for national reconciliation. The TRC, born from the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act (1995), aimed for “national reconciliation” as opposed to judicial administration. The TRC was characterised by amnesty in exchange for the disclosure of all relevant facts, as well as hearings that enabled victims to tell their stories with the possibility of reparation. Therefore, when elements needed in order to achieve reconciliation – such as justice, revenge and retribution – are absent, the importance of recovering ‘truths’ about human rights violations become paramount, though I argue insufficient for reconciliation.

 Under the TRC not only is reconciliation unlikely, but it has actually been more divisive, with victims exposing injuries and vulnerabilities while critical actors within the apartheid struggle are excused from the process, or not brought to account. This has created additional strain on victims who are engaged through discussing personal traumas, while not being guaranteed the information they seek, an apology from the perpetrator, or that reparations will be paid. Financial reparations have been significantly curtailed; political pardons provided to ANC leaders involved in atrocities; and the current governments’ withholding of information (culminating with the introduction of the Secrecy Bill this year) raise significant questions of truth and transparency. This ‘unfinished business’ leaves me questioning the extent to which governments are utilising memory as a tool to enhance their own political platform, rather than striving for genuine reconciliation.

 TRC trade-offs may have been necessary given the volume of crimes, limitations of the post-apartheid judicial system, and the need to obtain the ‘truth’. However, I agree with Sandra Young who argues that imposing reconciliation hastily results in political leaders missing opportunities to address the “intractable conflicts and social inequalities” (2004, p.149). Apartheid and additional post-colonisation practices linger across all facets of life, including: infrastructure and public works; education, employment and livelihoods opportunities; chronic trauma; endemic sexual violence; altered gender roles; and the questioning of religious norms and values – with Christianity used as a tool to encourage white supremacy and as the reason to oppose apartheid. More fundamental is the breakdown of family units through legislation dictating the intricate details of relationships, family life, and the areas in which one can live, travel and work. South Africans across racial lines are left with a ‘schizophrenic identity’ – where they do not feel a sense of belonging with the people they look . In this context, expecting reconciliation – or even that individuals can commence personal and livelihood recovery – without concerted efforts at restorative justice, is unrealistic.

 If national reconciliation is ever to be achieved, political will and resources need to be invested in individual and community recovery as well as ensuring genuine dedication by government to political and economic structures that support social change. Such efforts are more critical with the imminent passing of Nelson Mandela and the need to illustrate that the success of reconciliation efforts do not have to rest on one – albeit prominent – man, but will be intrinsically built in to the new South Africa. 


Today we went to Liliesleaf Farm, the hideout and headquarters for the ANC and the place that Nelson Mandela and other high profile ANC figures were captured. We began the day with a lecture and discussion on the truth and reconciliation process that South Africa had undertaken post-apartheid, with a particular emphasis on the TRC. From there we had a tour of Liliesleaf. As the discussion regarding the reconciliation process particularly resonated with me, it is what I would like to focus on.

The first question posed to us was whether we considered South Africa had achieved Truth and Reconciliation. The general response was that the process of reconciliation had not been effective. I found it interesting that the reasoning for this conclusion revolved around economic disparity today between blacks and whites in South Africa. I got the impression that many perceive a relationship between reconciliation and equality. Whilst I believe that an element of reconciliation is the process towards removing this disparity, considering that the large majority of the blacks were part of a regime that systematically attempted to keep them uneducated, I find it inevitable that reconciling the disparity cannot be a sudden but gradual process.  The general response, in contrast, didn’t appear to take into account this process as being gradual. Furthermore, empirically I found that this gradual process is in fact occurring. I found this from my conversation with our bus driver Obi the day before. Whilst driving towards Soweto, he pointed out a number of new shopping complexes which he believed were creating job opportunities. Many of these developments were situated outside of slums, which gave the impression that there was an attempt to bring meaningful change to those areas.

Of course, a process towards economic equality is not the only element in reconciling the injustices caused by apartheid, and much of the discussion focused on the TRC. For me, whilst I found that some of the perceived shortcomings of the commission were inevitable, there were elements that undermined the entire process of reconciliation. The first shortcoming discussed was the trade-off between gaining the truth and persecuting those who committed the most serious atrocities. Whilst accepting this trade off recognises that not every individual could possibly feel like justice was served, I don’t think that another system could have been formed to gain the amount of information that was obtained. Therefore, I think that criticising the process for not being able to achieve the steps traditionally required to reach reconciliation is fruitless.

However, as the discussion progressed, other shortcomings of the process appeared, of which I found undermined the process. I found the process had a bias towards those is position of power, making the process inconsistent. Winnie Mandela is a particularly strong case where this is apparent. Whilst she was both successfully convicted of atrocities and never gave any truth about her actions, she has nevertheless managed to avoid any incarceration. This is compared to others, who despite giving the complete truth were still convicted and sent to prison. I can’t see how reconciliation can be achieved where this bias could only create division between different parties.

Overall, the discussion certainly made me realise the complexities involved in achieving reconciliation. When viewing reconciliation as an economic process towards removing the disparity between black and white people, I believe there can be optimism that reconciliation can be achieved. However, when reflecting on the TRC, the inconsistencies in the commission surely only contributed to disunity rather than reconciliation.