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Megan Shore Analyzes the Role of Religion in the Quest for Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa

Megan Shore

On October 29, 2015, the Institute for African Development Seminar Series welcomed Megan Shore as speaker. Shore, Associate Professor, Social Justice and Peace Studies, King’s University College at Western University, spoke onReligion and Conflict Resolution: Christianity and South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.”

Religious actors played a major role—perhaps the most visible role—in leading the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in South Africa. On December 16, 1995, President Mandela appointed 17 commissioners to the TRC. Seven were from the legal profession, four were ordained ministers who had been leaders in Christian denominations, and the rest were from the medical and NGO communities. The two most prominent Christian leaders were also the most prominent leaders in the TRC: Archbishop Desmond Tutu was chair, while Dr. Alex Boraine was deputy chair. The church was a natural organization to lead the TRC as it had the organizational capacity and leadership.

The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission was based on the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act, No. 34 of 1995: “A commission is a necessary exercise to enable South Africans to come to terms with their past on a morally accepted basis and to advance the cause of reconciliation” (Mr. Dullah Omar, former Minister of Justice).

The TRC carried out its mandate through three committees: the Amnesty Committee, the Reparation and Rehabilitation (R&R) Committee, and the Human Rights Violations (HRV) Committee. As Johnny de Lange, an ANC parliamentarian involved in the creation of the TRC, has recalled: “During the negotiations that established the TRC, religion was not part of the equation. The TRC was not intended to be a religious process.” Yet religion became an “empowered truth-telling discourse used by victims and survivors in recounting their stories of apartheid abuse.”

In addition to leadership, religious rituals also had a place in the TRC. The TRC opened its first event at a church, and the Commission itself sometimes served as a site of Christian ritual. Hymns were often sung during testimonies, particularly at tense moments, and scripture passages were often read aloud as encouragement for victims to continue their testimonies.

The second Truth Commission focused more on how to get from truth to reconciliation. There was no clear definition of reconciliation, which was more properly understood as a moral process. In the TRC, the version of truth-telling encouraged for victims was embedded in Christian ritual, while on the other hand perpetrators were discouraged from using such rituals.

The public face of the TRC took on different tones and forms in uncovering the truth. Those hearing victims’ stories were sometimes referred to as the “Kleenex Commission” because of the emotional character of these hearings, which were quite often held in churches with religious leaders in charge. Amnesty hearings, on the contrary, were held in courtroom settings with judges listening and often chiding the victims when they became too emotional.

Human Rights became the language used for victims, a redemptive suffering narrative, while legal forensic discourse held sway in the amnesty portion of the hearings as amnesty was a legal outcome.

Tension between the religious and legal discourses helped develop the stories, but it delayed progress toward social and economic justice. Justice and equality have not been achieved; South Africa is the most unequal nation on earth. For the future, the major challenge for faith-based communities is to discover their role in the rebuilding of justice and the overcoming of social divisions.

The TRC focused on truth-telling and reconciliation as a starting point to the healing of relations between blacks and whites. The Commission now needs to work for structural balance according to Professor Shore.