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South Africa’s Christian experiment for finding healing from its violent past

Jones, L.G., with Gallagher, S.V. & Tutu, D. (1998, February 9). "How much truth can we take?: South Africa’s Christian experiment for finding healing from its violent past." Christianity Today, pp. 18-26.


South Africa’s apartheid is one of the world’s most well-known forms of corporate racism. Since apartheid’s abolishment in 1993, there has been a growing desire to deal with past injustices among the people. At first, South Africa sought other countries to address this issue by forming "truth commissions" similar to the decades-old Nuremberg trials. More recently, the country has given the task of healing past wounds to Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a man respected throughout South Africa and the world.

Thus, in 1994, Archbishop Tutu formed a committee called "the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC)." The organization’s mission follows:

  • To address the objective truth and suffering of victims, both black and white.
  • To encourage forgiveness for the perpetrator when the perpetrator confesses his or her crimes.

The TLC is based on these three principles:

  • There can be no healing of the past without truthful confession.
  • Truthful confession will only be life-giving if we can trust that others are more interested in forgiving, reconciliation, and restorative justice than in retribution.
  • In the absence of reconciliation, people still need to seek processes to retain our commitment to truthful confession and reconciliation even while acknowledging the persistence of division and conflict.

In order to gain amnesty, a perpetrator must first petition the commission, who must be convinced of following criteria before granting a hearing of the confession:

  • The act(s) involved a political objective.
  • The act(s) took place during the time period designated by the commission (1960-93).
  • The act(s) committed were proportional to the political objective being sought.
  • The perpetrator has confessed the whole truth.

After the perpetrator confesses his or her own crime, "the very process of requiring personal, public confession" is required as "an accountability that we are not to underestimate. This involves courage, and it also enables South Africans and the whole world to have a public reckoning of the past." Once the entire process is complete, the person gains amnesty.

Of course, not all are willing to confess, and some prominent leaders have refused to do so, including Winnie Mandela (who was responsible significant violence against whites) and P.W. Botha, the former president, who claims he did nothing wrong. Also, some victims have protested the Commission’s policy of amnesty . Not all are willing to choose reconciliation in place of retribution. Since the injustices have been so great, it is understandable that they wish to see punishment.

Some people are concerned that amnesty offers "cheap reconciliation, particularly since those who confess do not have to express either remorse or repentance....Those who do not seem to be [expressing remorse are] getting away with murder—literally." Others have made objections to the committee because they believe that those on the committee "do not want forgiveness at all; they want justice and, perhaps, even vengeance...lawfully recognized justice" for the crimes that the perpetrator has committed. However, the TLC hoped that African victims would not characterize the TLC and their "Christian morality of forgiveness into a political process," since the TLC is based on the theology of Jesus. Jesus’ ministry was focused in restorative rather than retributive justice, because he was offering forgiveness through his life, death, and resurrection. The TRC is offering "Christian restoration"—not the justice. Thus, many victims, both black and white, have chosen to forgo vengeance and instead express forgiveness and hope for a just society in the future.

The article reflects the view that if "reconciliation can happen in South Africa, it can happen elsewhere." Because South Africa is a country of great racial suffering, many are unsure about "how much truth [they] can tolerate." However, thus far, "South Africa’s national culture seems to have been able to tolerate an astonishing level of truthfulness."

It is important to acknowledge the "dramatic and significant stories" of victims and their families offering forgiveness to a perpetrator when a crime is confessed. Victims are often moved to tears simply by the chance to speak publicly. Great respect is accorded to them; the attendees rise, not when the commission enters, but when the victims enter. The members of the commission come up to shake their hands. This is a remarkable statement to those who have so long been disenfranchised and dehumanized. The entire process is conducted with great ceremony; a candle is lit to symbolize truth.


  1. South Africa was known to have implemented one of most severe forms of legal and corporate racism. If people in South Africa can reconcile with one another, is it possible for people all over the world?
  2. This article describes the goal of a democratic society as tolerance and mutual cooperation. How is that different from the goal of reconciliation? Is your country or region achieving tolerance? Do you think that it can truly be achieved without also achieving the second goal, reconciliation?
  3. When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established, it was decided that amnesty would be granted to anyone who openly and completely confessed crimes that had been committed because of a political objective (i.e., apartheid). Some opponents of this policy supported Nuremberg-style trials instead, with severe punishments. Do you agree or disagree with the amnesty policy? What are its pros and cons?
  4. How could this sort of "truth-telling"—public confessions by criminals and a chance for the victims to tell their own stories—help resolve racial tensions in the U.S.? How can similar forums be created?
  5. How should the TLC approach higher officers in the government who do not wish to confess their crimes? (It is important for visible people—especially government officials—to set examples, so that many more can be encouraged to do so.)
  6. What should the TLC do when they find out that the perpetrator has "confessed" the crime without repentance? Should the TLC reapproach them? Should they remove their amnesty?
  7. How can the truth about past racial injustices be told in a way that heals rather than divides further?
  8. Have you ever experienced true reconciliation in a personal way?
  9. How can you work toward reconciliation in your own community?


  1. When someone goes to the public and confesses a sin or wrongdoing, it should be accepted as sincere, as it is difficult to publicly admit one’s own guilt in persecuting a victim. Receive confessors with a gentle heart and forgiveness.
  2. The racial segregation of South Africa was established long ago; it will be difficult to completely remove racism from their culture. People in South Africa should try to work at it in small steps rather than by trying to usher vast changes that cannot immediately be realized. Patienceand perseverance are required.
  3. Children learn from their parent’s behavior. Teach children about the sins of racism. This is key to removing racism from our future.
  4. People who do not want to confess their crimes will not do so. Their hearts must first be changed.
  5. Although this article focuses on South Africa, racism is a sin that each of us has committed. We all need repentance and reconciliation.
  6. A Christian conception of reconciliation is having a powerful effect in South Africa today. Christian ethics along with the ethics of other religions have important contributions to make to the secular public arena. It is important to apply experiences of faith in working for peace and justice in the world.
  7. Racial reconciliation is beginning to occur in a country where there has been much past oppression. America may be able to learn from what is happening there. Truth must be told for forgiveness and reconciliation to occur.

Suh Y. Yoon and Laurie Johnston cCYS