Can Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commissions Teach America How to Heal?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because navigating the way forward from state-sponsored violence requires state-sponsored dialogue.
- From South Africa to Rwanda to Guatemala, nations have confronted their ugly pasts with government commissions and panels that unearthed secrets and meted out judgment.
- As it grapples with racism, the U.S. could learn from these examples of how to confront the problem head-on.
In the 1990s, trauma came uninvited alongside the triumphant entry of democracy into parts of Africa, Latin America and elsewhere, along with the Soviet Union’s collapse. The oppressive machinery that eccentric dictators fine-tuned through human rights abuses continue to wreak havoc today.
South Africa, fresh from its abhorrent past as a haven of segregation regulated by the white-minority government, was the first to boldly confront that trauma headlong. Nelson Mandela, who served a 27-year jail sentence on his way to becoming the first president in the post-apartheid era, established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 1994. Guatemala, Nigeria, Rwanda and other countries followed suit. Those countries’ experiences show that commissions are hardly a cure-all, but it’s a path worth considering as the United States encounters its own demons amid nationwide protests.
To navigate the way forward from state-sponsored violence — from slavery through Jim Crow to police brutality — state-sponsored dialogue is key. Africa’s conflicts are usually rooted in ethnic or religious identity or struggle for land and its resources; racism in America mirrors that. Beyond well-intended but meaningless acts of kneeling together with kente stoles and performative public renunciations of white privilege, America could revisit mass hurt by bringing both survivors and perpetrators to the same table.
We need to break the cycle of bloodshed and to do that, we have to be willing to be vulnerable.
Wilhelm Verwoerd, former researcher at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission
South Africa’s TRC was headed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and promised amnesty as more than 7,000 perpetrators confessed to crimes, with more than 20,000 recorded statements from victims over the course of seven years.
“We need to break the cycle of bloodshed and to do that, we have to be willing to be vulnerable,” says Wilhelm Verwoerd, who denounced the policies of his grandfather, the ex-prime minister and “architect of apartheid” Hendrik Verwoerd, and campaigned for Mandela’s presidency. Verwoerd, who was one of the TRC’s researchers, calls it an exercise of “inclusive moral remembrance.”
Critics called it a “Kleenex Commission,” saying offenders got away too easily. Tutu himself has said the TRC has “unfinished business,” calling for reparations, a one-off wealth tax and prosecution of those denied amnesty by today’s authorities. Economic power still largely remains in the hands of the white minority, but the commission was widely seen as successful and a sorely needed step for a broken nation.
Nigeria’s TRC only focused on the military regimes and not the civil war that preceded them, but left a trail of hurt still present today. The “Oputa panel” — nicknamed for the retired supreme court justice who chaired it — was modeled after South Africa’s but did not have the public buy-in. There were too few confessions, no prosecutions and the report was never publicly released.
Guatemala’s Commission for Historical Clarification, set up to address human rights violations during the 36-year civil war that was triggered by a CIA-backed coup, had limited powers and mixed results. It led to a reparations scheme for the Mayan indigenous peoples who had been most affected by the genocide, but ex-dictator Jose Rios Montt, who found his way into power again, died during a retrial for his role in the genocide after a 2012 conviction was overturned.
Rwandans agreed to extensively discuss their large-scale hurt through the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission (NURC) and also built monuments to victims, rather than the trespassers. That process has made all the difference today. Instead of offering amnesty in exchange for truth in addressing the 1994 genocide, the NURC worked directly with its special gacaca courts in handing out jail sentences and facilitating communal reconciliation.
That legal backing was key, says Cheta Nwanze, head of research at Lagos-based sociopolitical advisory SBM Intelligence. “NURC [also] had powers of subpoena, which the Oputa panel did not,” says Nwanze. “Also, both [former presidents] Babangida and Buhari refused to appear before the Oputa panel. And the moment they [refused], it lost bite as it became easy to cast it as a joke, which was what happened.”
While private organizations have taken the lead on past U.S. reconciliation efforts, it will take the force of government to find a path forward on racial justice — whether it’s the restorative or retributive kind.
There is no alternative but to face the past squarely.