- The Burdens of Truth: An Evaluation of the Psychological Support Services and Initiatives Undertaken by the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission
Apartheid South Africa was characterised by extreme levels of brutality and state initiated violence. To attempt to deal with the aftermath of this violence and break the silence associated with decades of human rights violations—the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established. The purpose of this Commission was to facilitate a “truth recovery process” aimed at reconciling South Africans with the past. However, like all truth commissions, the South African TRC was essentially created for political reasons. Broadly speaking, it was created to assist in smoothing the political transition from authoritarian to democratic rule. It has also been used by the new government to demonstrate their willingness to break with the past and usher in a new political and social order based on the protection, rather than violation, of human rights.
A further justification for the entire endeavour has been psychological in nature. Namely, that to deal with the thousands of traumas the apartheid system has inflicted on South Africans, the nation as a whole and its individual citizens both have to re-live the past so as to come to terms with it. It has been argued that survivors of traumatic events, and more broadly governments in transformation from past political conflict like South Africa, are often urged to let sleeping dogs lie [End Page 9] or to let bygones be bygones. However, psychologically sleeping dogs do not lie; past traumas do not simply pass or disappear with the passage of time (Hamber 1995). Psychologically the past can never be ignored and past traumas can always be expected to have emotional consequences for an individual and the society at large. For individuals repressed pain can stunt emotional life and manifest itself in a range of psychological and physical symptoms. Psychological restoration and healing can only occur through providing the space for survivors of violence to feel heard and for every detail of the traumatic event to be re-experienced in a safe environment.
The paper will focus exclusively on the degree to which the limited psychological services that have been set up by the TRC have aided this sort of individual psychological restoration. A limited degree of emphasis will be given to the national or collective psychological impact of the TRC. The paper will begin by summarising the work and mandate of the TRC. The limitations on the TRC’s ability to offer services to those who testified before it and exactly how the TRC has psychologically affected these individuals will be briefly discussed. Thereafter, the different psychological and support services that have been set up, or failed to be initiated, will be outlined and critically scrutinised.
2. Summary of the Mandate of the TRC
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was the first independent body established in South Africa to deal with the issue of past political violence and the prevention of future human rights abuses. The TRC was brought into existence through an act of Parliament known as the National Unity and Reconciliation Act. The TRC began operating in December 1995. Since its inception it has aimed to give voice to the experiences of victims, witnesses and perpetrators of apartheid-era violence so as to uncover as complete a picture as possible of the causes, nature and extent of past abuses that occurred between the period 1 March 1960 to 10 May 1994.
The TRC has the express purpose of facilitating a truth [End Page 10] recovery process through taking statements from survivors and families of victims of gross violations of human rights (i.e. murder, attempted murder, abduction and torture or severe ill-treatment). So-called representative and demonstrative cases are chosen from among the statements and these individuals are given public hearings. At these hearings, survivors and families of victims relate how they were victimised. At other hearings, perpetrators’ confessions and amnesty applications are heard. At the end of its term of office in July 1998 the TRC is obligated to write a policy which will ensure that survivors and families of victims are granted reparation...