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Criticisms of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission of South Africa

"A full confession can bring amnesty and immunity from prosecution or civil procedures for the crimes committed. Therein lies the central irony of the Commission. As people give more and more evidence of the things they have done they get closer and closer to amnesty and it gets more and more intolerable that these people should be given amnesty."
- William Kentridge, director of "Ubu and the Truth Commission"


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Although it was intended to salve the wounds embedded within the country’s history and bring voices to the injuries suffered, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission received a great deal of criticism.  Critics questioned whether the commission efficaciously exposed or merely bandaged previous injustices.  Some resented the commission’s exploitation of individual trauma; the commission often made painful, personal accounts of loss and struggle into public examples in order to legitimize a collective claim, which stirred emotion but did little to mobilize change.  Due to the inherent discrepancy between the emotions of the witnesses and translations of their accounts, much of the impassioned impact was lost in translation; witnesses were eventually inured to the harrowing testimonies of tragedy.  In addition, the pardoning of the apartheid government’s human rights abuses angered many black South Africans who believed prosecution and conviction were the only ways justice would prevail.  Most notably, the family of anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko opposed amnesty for his killers, arguing the commission to be unconstitutional.  Despite structural flaws and shortcomings, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission proved essential to the reconciliation of both nation and state.

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Suggested production: Taylor, Jane. Ubu and the Truth Commission. Cape Town: University of Cape Town Press, 1998.