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Apr 15 Mandela & Truth and Reconciliation

The achievement of nation building in South Africa has been a beacon and sign of hope for the international community. At a time when multi-racial societies are under stress the example of peaceful transition to a post-apartheid South Africa is a testimony to Nelson Mandela. We look at the Truth and Reconciliation commission that facilitated that transition and the faith of three of the key players Mandela, Archbishop Tutu, and President de Klerk. Today the National broadcaster started the television coverage of the truth and reconciliation commission, as the rainbow nation entered its post-apartheid era.


The Truth and Reconciliation process was founded by president Nelson Mandela, who had been imprisoned for 27 years for his violent opposition to the racist policies of Apartheid. Mandela, a Methodist with a discreet but committed faith, had emerged from prison as an international statesman, with a profound magnanimity in light of the injustices that he had suffered. Subsequently he was elected and served as President for 5 years, successfully overseeing the transition to full and free democracy in South Africa. Anglican Archbishop, Desmond Tutu was appointed chairman of the truth and reconciliation commission, which held 1003 court-like hearings, in a mass exercise of restorative justice. The mandate of the commission was to bear witness to, record, and in some cases grant amnesty to the perpetrators of crimes relating to human rights violations, as well as offering reparation and rehabilitation to the victims. A register of reconciliation was also established so that ordinary South Africans who wished to express regret for past failures could also express their remorse.

The emphasis on reconciliation was in sharp contrast to similar nation-wide attempts to deliver restorative justice, such as the approach taken by the Nuremberg Trials and other de-Nazification measures. The reconciliatory approach was seen as a successful way of dealing with human-rights violations after political change. Originally the hearings were set to be heard in private, but the intervention of 23 non-governmental organisations succeeded in gaining media access to the hearings. On 15 April 1996, the South African National Broadcaster televised the first two hours of the first human rights violation committee hearing live. With funding from the Norwegian government, radio continued to broadcast live throughout. Additional high-profile hearings, such as Winnie Mandela's testimony, were also televised live. The rest of the hearings were presented on television each Sunday, from April 1996 to June 1998, in hour-long episodes of the Truth Commission Special Report.

Critics of the commission argued that concepts of truth and atoning tendencies of the TRC downplayed justice. The Kairos Document (KD) was a theological statement issued under the state of emergency declared on 21 July 1985. Ten years before the Commission it was written by a group of mainly black South African theologians based predominantly in the townships of Soweto, South Africa. Written in Five Chapters it argued that while true reconciliation and peace are the core of the Christian tradition, true reconciliation, is not possible without justice. Calls for reconciliation without justice are calls for "counterfeit reconciliation". Emerging from different strands of liberation theology they promoted truth and justice and life at all costs, even at the cost of creating conflict, disunity and dissension along the way. This was reminiscent of Dietrich Bonhoeffers criticism of cheap grace during the Nazi Regime, (see pod of April 8th ). Variations of this criticism were levelled at the commission 10 years later.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, published a book long reflection on the process called No Future without Forgiveness exploring the connection between telling the truth and social justice. The public storytelling for those who had been cruelly silenced for so long was essential. The public remembering the cruelties of the past, was painful but well managed, restored an individual’s human dignity and brought some healing for the nation. In his reflection Tutu argued that true reconciliation cannot be achieved by denying the past. Trying to move beyond platitudes about forgiveness, he offered a deeper spirituality that recognizes the horrors people can inflict upon one another, and yet retains a sense of idealism about reconciliation.

The policy of apartheid ‘separateness’ had been justified by Afrikaner church leaders by misusing a Calvinistic theology of predestination and white supremacy. President de Klerk a committed Calvinist, had released Mandela, and became his vice president in a government of nation unity. In 1993 they were both awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their joint work on reconciliation. In the swearing in ceremony, De Klerk was unhappy that it had become multi-religious, and when he was being sworn in, and the chief justice said "So help me God", de Klerk did not repeat this, instead stating, in Afrikaans: "So help me the triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit". His staunch Calvinism, became a source of scandal when his wife of 38 years, Marike de Klerk, divorced him following the discovery of his affair with the wife of a Greek shipping tycoon. Tragically Marike was murdered a couple of years later and found stabbed and strangled to death in her Cape Town flat. The atrocity was reportedly condemned strongly by South African president Thabo Mbeki and Winnie Mandela, among others, who openly spoke in favour of Marike de Klerk and a 21-year-old security guard received two life sentences for murder. The manuscript of her autobiography, A Place Where the Sun Shines Again, was submitted to de Klerk, who urged the publishers to suppress a chapter dealing with his infidelity. The restorative story telling seemed to have limits.

However, his role as a statesman is not disputed, working with Mandela, he accomplished the rare feat of bringing about systemic revolution through peaceful means. It was a significant achievement to dismantle more than three centuries of white supremacy, It also took a deft politician to sell this to a frightened white minority, explaining this as white conversion rather than white surrender. The hard-line Conservative Party came to regard him as its most hated adversary, However history will always portray De Klerk as being in the shadow of Nelson Mandela. Mandela was always quick to acknowledge the importance of his Methodist faith, but was keen not to overstate it or wear it as a badge of respectability, "I am just an ordinary person trying to make sense of the mysteries of life", He was keen for it to be known that he was Christian, owing his education almost entirely to the Methodist Church. In his long years of imprisonment on Robben Island, he received Holy Communion regularly from visiting Methodist ministers. As the British historian Tom Holland remarked, Christianity had provided the colonised and traumatised with their surest voice. A month before his election as president, Mandela had travelled to the holy city of Morai in the Transvaal to celebrate Easter saying ‘ Easter is a festival of human solidarity – a risen messiah who chose not one language, not one tribe, but all of mankind’.


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