Item 672 - Opening address by President Nelson Mandela in the special debate on the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission

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Opening address by President Nelson Mandela in the special debate on the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission


  • 1999-02-25 (Creation)

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Transcription of speech made by Mr Mandela

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(18 July 1918-5 December 2013)

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Migrated from the Nelson Mandela Speeches Database (Sep-2018).

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ANC Website

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Special Debate on the TRC Report

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  • English

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Madam Speaker;
Chairperson of the National Council of provinces;
Honourable Members and Delegates.

The debate on which we are embarking is not just for the three hours set aside today. Nor is it only for us gathered together in this hallowed chamber of democracy as the nation's elected representatives.

The forging of a common understanding of our history and the reconciliation of our people are goals which can be reached only by a collective and protracted effort of our whole nation.

The best ways of achieving these goals is therefore also a matter for the broadest possible debate among South Africans and even further afield.

But above all, the TRC Interim Report is a call to action.

And as we put our thoughts together on the challenges ahead, we need to remind ourselves that the quest for reconciliation was the fundamental objective of the people's struggle, to set up a government based on the will of the people, and build a South Africa which indeed belongs to all. The quest for reconciliation was the spur that gave life to our difficult negotiations process and the agreements that emerged from it. The search for a nation at peace with itself is the primary motivation for our Reconstruction and Development Programme to build a better life for all.

The challenge that we face in taking the TRC process forward is to focus in particular on the special additional measures that we need to undertake to reach the ideal of reconciliation.

Some four months has passed since the TRC submitted its Interim Report to the President and the nation. Although the TRC's work and its reporting will be completed only with the conclusion of the amnesty process, it is right that we should now initiate the national debate on Reconciliation and Nation-Building.

It is appropriate too that our nation's elected representatives should be given this task in the closing weeks of our country's first democratic parliament. This Parliament represents a break from our apartheid past; and its challenge was to lay the foundation for greater speed in realising our shared vision of a better life for all South Africans.

As we speak today, we will therefore all of us be conscious of the historic responsibility upon us as we begin the national consultation on reconciliation. The experience of others has taught that nations which do not deal with their past are haunted by it for generations.

Honourable members and delegates;

It would be well to underline at the outset that reconciliation touches upon virtually every facet of our life as a nation.

The TRC is an important component in that process, and its work is a critical milestone in a journey that has just started. We say this advisedly. For South Africans cannot abdicate their responsibility for reconciliation by shifting it to the TRC, or gloating at its perceived weaknesses. Nor can the task of reconciliation be confined to narrow legalese.

Long after the Commission has folded and its offices closed, political leaders and all of us in business, the trade union movement, religious bodies, professionals and communities in general shall have to remain seized with the matters that the TRC process brought to the fore. In as much as reconciliation touches on every aspect of our lives, it is our nation's life-line.

As I noted when addressing Parliament three weeks ago, reflecting on the first steps ten years ago towards our negotiated transition, reconciliation requires the dismantling of apartheid and the measures that reinforced it. It requires that we overcome the consequences of that inhuman system which live on in our attitudes towards one another and in the poverty and inequality that affects the lives of millions.

As we reached out across the divisions of centuries to establish democracy, we need now to work together in all our diversity, including the diversity of our experience and recollection of our history, to overcome the divisions themselves and eradicate their consequences.

Reconciliation is central to that vision which moved millions of men and women to risk all, including their lives, in the struggle against apartheid and white domination. It is inseparable from the achievement of a non-racial, democratic and united nation affording common citizenship, rights and obligations to each and every person, and respecting the rich diversity of our people.

Such were the wounds and the polarisation caused by apartheid and the conflict which it generated, such was our yearning for peace, and such the balance of forces in our settlement, that reconciliation demanded a uniquely South African instrument to help us to start dealing with our past.

And so it was that our negotiated Interim Constitution set the scene for this first democratic Parliament to provide for that instrument in the form of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

I would like once again to record our appreciation of the commission, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, his fellow commissioners, their staff and field workers for the service they have rendered to the country and for the continuing work of the Amnesty Committee. Their dedication to a difficult and painful task has helped us through a historic stage in our journey towards a better society.

They made it possible for tens of thousands of South Africans to make known the inhumanities they had endured. They made it possible for others to disclose their part in inflicting or acquiescing in those inhumanities by acts of commission or omission.

To all the men and women who helped the Commission in these ways, we owe a debt of gratitude for their courage and honesty. They have helped us begin to change from what we were towards the nation we aspire to be.

For all these reasons I had no hesitation in accepting the report of the TRC presented to me in October, with all its imperfections.

Madame Speaker;

It was inevitable that a task of such magnitude, done in so short a time, and so early in a process that will still take many years to accomplish would suffer various limitations. And indeed the report itself highlights many of these.

It was also inevitable, given the nature of the divisions that do still run through our society, and the freshness of the wounds still to be healed that the judgements of such a body will jar with how some or others of us see matters.

As we anticipated, when the report was handed over in October, questions arose about an artificial even-handedness that seemed to place those fighting a just war alongside those who they opposed and who defended an inhuman system.

Further still, the practical consequences of the compromise that gave birth to the amnesty process as an instrument of peaceful transition are painful to many of the victims of human rights violations and their families.

Many who lost loved ones or who lived through terror that seemed incomprehensible in its cynical inhumanity will wonder at what seems to be the dismissal of the existence of a "third force": the fact of the existence of a deliberate strategy and programme by the powers-that-be as they then were, to foment violence among the oppressed, to arm and lead groups that sowed death and destruction before and especially after 1990.

No less inevitable, many have identified failures and mistakes in the report and the process leading to its release. The reservations and criticisms expressed by various parties and individuals and the court challenges testify to this.

As they contemplate the proceedings of the TRC, some will wonder how it was that the amnesty applications of political prisoners did not receive priority, as required by the Act. Others will wonder whether all those who could throw light on the violations of the past were pursued with equal vigour to yield their knowledge to the public through the TRC.

Questions have also been raised regarding the impartiality or otherwise of the Commission. And some have sought to find in the work of this body, a witch-hunt against a specific language group.

It is not my task to pronounce upon all these issues, and some of them may no doubt appear in a different light when the TRC gives a more complete account after the amnesty process is completed.

It will be for the national debate we are starting here today, to come to a resolution where that is possible. In many cases it will require a process of many years that calls on the contributions of religious leaders, poets and artists as much as those of politicians, academics and investigators.

But there are also matters of principle that require a shared commitment without which reconciliation will be a pipe-dream.

As we approach this debate, and as we prepare to act upon the report, we would do well to remind ourselves also of those limitations in the report of the TRC which arose from obstacles which we, as a nation, placed in the way of its discharging its task of helping us towards truth, reconciliation and unity.

In particular, we should take note of the difficulties it faced as a result of what it saw as a lack of response to the spirit of generosity and reconciliation embodied in the establishment of the commission, on the part to those who were part of, or who benefited from, or who acquiesced in the apartheid state.

We note this not out of any vindictive spirit of pointing fingers.

We note it because the success of reconciliation and nation-building will depend on all sectors of our society recognising with the world, as did the TRC, that apartheid was a crime against humanity, whose vile deeds transcended our borders, and sowed the seeds of destruction whose harvest we continue to reap today.

About this, there can be no equivocation: for it is this recognition that lies at the very heart of the national pact that is our new constitution, of our new democracy and the culture of human rights that we are building together.

For all its limitations the TRC has performed a monumental task in helping our nation towards this understanding. Indeed, insofar as our Constitution and Bill of Fundamental Rights embodies our nation's conception of humanity, no other finding was possible upon a system which sought to deny us all our common humanity and to divide us one from another and set us against each other.

It would be right on this occasion to record our appreciation, on behalf of the government and people of our country, for the contribution which countless South Africans have made to end the apartheid system and bring to our country freedom and the possibility of realising in full measure the values inscribed in our new constitution.

We recognise today the many men, women and children who sacrificed freedom and even life itself; who have been left with disabilities; who have lost families. We think of the suffering of communities and the trauma of the nation as a whole. We reflect on the scars that all South Africans carry, marking the damage inflicted by a violent and inhuman system.

We think of those apartheid sought to imprison in the jails of hate and fear; those it infused with a false doctrine of superiority to justify their inhumanity to others. But we think too of those it conscripted or encouraged into machines of destruction, exacting a heavy toll among them in life and limb, and in a warped disregard for life and the trauma that goes with it.

We think of the millions of South Africans who live in poverty, because of apartheid, disadvantaged and excluded from opportunity by the discrimination of the past.

We recall our terrible past so that we can deal with it, to forgive where forgiveness is necessary, without forgetting; to ensure that never again will such inhumanity tear us apart; and to move ourselves to eradicate a legacy that lurks dangerously as a threat to our democracy.

Honourable members;

It is against that background that we turn to the recommendations which the TRC makes in its report to the nation. Because the effects of the past are so profound and far-reaching, there is a large number of recommendations to address these. This occasion allows a look at only some of the major ones.

The first set of recommendations for promoting reconciliation focuses on building a strong human rights culture in order to prevent gross human rights violations in the future.

In this regard, we should draw pride in our new constitution and the culture of openness and accountability that have become the trademarks of our new society. And we should here today recommit ourselves to these values, and to practical action to promote human rights among all citizens and to protect the institutions charged by our constitution with this important responsibility.

The TRC's recommendation that our programmes of socio-economic change, investment in people and the creation of employment be accelerated shares our own view that a strong human rights culture is rooted in the material conditions of our lives, and that none of us can enjoy lasting peace, human rights and security while a part of our nation lives in poverty.

The TRC's call for a specific partnership of government and the private sector for job-creation and training is partly embodied in the outcome of the Jobs Summit, as is the call for a contribution by those who benefited from apartheid towards the alleviation of poverty.

The call for the establishment of a scheme to facilitate such a contribution merits further exploration. It is my personal experience when I have made personal calls on business leaders to share their resources with the disadvantaged, that they have never hesitated. There are many communities across our land who have access to health and educational facilities because of such assistance. But measured against the potential and the need, the examples point to how much more could be done.

The TRC issues a call, which we strongly endorse, for a recommitment in both public and private sectors, with renewed vigour, to the transformation of our structures and corporations through a combination of affirmative action and employment equity together with the strengthening of a culture of hard work, efficiency and honesty.

As part of these challenges, we also should recommit ourselves to a concerted fight against crime and corruption, by joining together as communities and the law-enforcement agencies to bring safety and security to our homes, streets and work-places.

Secondly, the TRC raises the issue of accountability and prosecution where there is evidence of human rights violations, and in particular in the case of members of the former South African Police who are found to have assaulted and/or killed persons in their care.

Accountability does need to be established and where evidence exists of a serious crime, prosecution should be instituted within a fixed time-frame. That time-frame needs to be realistic, taking into account how long it takes for evidence to be secured and preparations made for successful prosecution. Yet a time-frame for this process is necessary; for we cannot afford as a nation and as government, to be saddled with unending judicial processes which can easily bog down our current efforts to resolve problems of the present.

These matters will of course be handled by the Office of the National Director of Prosecutions. And we believe that in discharging this responsibility the Director will take into account not only the critical need to establish accountability and the rule of law, but also to advance reconciliation and the long-term interests of our country. It is in this spirit too that the matter of extradition will need to be handled.

In this context, it will also be necessary to further examine the question of the TRC Act as it pertains to organisations and institutions which were involved in the conflict of the past. It seems to us an omission on our part as legislators that, while individuals are accommodated, the process leaves open the possibility of endless litigation against the new democratic government as well as structures that were involved in this conflict. We hope that these matters will receive the attention of the Amnesty Committee as it wraps up its work.

But let us reiterate that we are not contemplating a general amnesty under any guise. Such an approach would go against the grain of the very process that we all agreed upon; it would undermine the culture of accountability that we seek to engender.

Thirdly, the TRC advances recommendations concerned with healing and rehabilitation.

We should use this occasion to share the TRC's recognition of the role played by Non-Governmental Organisations in assisting victims and survivors. We will continue to count on their help, and we shall do what we can within our means to provide the services which the TRC finds as necessary to facilitate healing and rehabilitation.

We should not underestimate the difficulties of re-integrating back into communities those who have committed gross violations of human rights, or those accused of being informers and collaborators.

But we have many examples of great generosity and nobility on the part of communities to encourage us. Such instances are a reproach to those who sought amnesty without remorse, but they will also be an inspiration to others in this difficult and sensitive task.

Related to this, questions have also arisen about the continued propagation and analysis of the results of the TRC's work. There is also no doubt that further research and follow up will be necessary to take forward specific cases and the general thrust of the search for the truth. Our view on this matter is that, if this were indeed to be formally undertaken, it should be a collective decision of the public representatives of the nation, rather than efforts of individuals.

Fourthly, and lastly, coupled with rehabilitation, there is the matter of reparations.

We should commend the Reparation and Rehabilitation Committee for its work and the policy document it has published to assist us in finding the way forward. Its recommendations are broadly acceptable to the government. Already urgent interim reparation has been paid to individual victims identified by the TRC, and funds have been set aside for this purpose in the budget.

But we are all fully aware that such reparation can only be symbolic rather than proportionate to the suffering and sacrifice. The best reparation for the suffering of victims and communities and the highest recognition of their efforts is the transformation of our society into one which makes a living reality of the human rights for which they struggled.

Having said this government is firmly of the view that to the extent that resources allow, individual reparation grants should continue to be made to identified surviving families and victims

Clearly, the mobilisation of such resources for reparations, individual and collective, will require the partnership of the private sector and civil society with government. The various proposals from the Committee on how to do this, and in particular how a special contribution can be made by those who have the resources to do so as a result of the past, will need further examination. So does the recommendation that a structure with a fixed life-span should be established to oversee the implementation of reparation and rehabilitation initiatives.

One outstanding matter that should receive special attention, is that of expediting the process of exhumations and burials. Amongst the many contributions of the TRC, the recovery of the remains of victims and their return to family and community in proper reburial, have been profound in their contribution to healing and knowledge of the past. While the limitations of this with regard to those buried outside the country are widely recognised, this should not subtract from our responsibility to find ways of recognising and acknowledging them in a manner that will bring succour not only to their families and relatives, but also to a nation reaping the fruits of their tireless labour.

The building of monuments and memorials to those who gave their lives, as part of the reconstruction and development of our society, will rightly seize the creativity of our people.

Honourable members and delegates;

The shaping of these recommendations into practical programmes of action will require the work of every sector of government and society.

The TRC therefore makes a number of specific recommendations with regard to government departments and structures of civil society for addressing the legacies of our past. In doing so it urges special sensitivity towards the needs of those sectors of our society, children and women, on whom the past had the greatest impact, something that is strongly written into all our policies.

It will be important to ensure that the many and varied recommendations of the TRC lead to action that is effective and co-ordinated as well as consistent with programmes already in place for the reconstruction of our society.

This applies not only to government's responsibility to society; nor just the partnerships that we referred to earlier. Indeed, the TRC Interim Report raises many critical questions about such independent institutions as the media and the judiciary. And we hope that, within these bodies, the lessons of that experience are not only internalised; but that visible steps are taken to ensure that they establish and consolidate the credibility necessary for these institutions to function as a critical part of our democracy

Madame Speaker;

We have raised some of these issues only as a small contribution to the debate that should unfold over many years within our nation.

But the critical moment where we can translate most of the TRC recommendations into practical programmes is the National Summit on Reconciliation that the TRC itself has proposed. I believe that it will be one of the immediate challenges of the new government to convene such a Summit. But it is a Summit that should be preceded by the widest possible consultations so that it emerges with concrete programmes rather than pious declarations.

We know too keenly that no debate can ever capture the emotions that were laid bare in a process that launched our nation's catharsis.

Captured in halls through the length and breath of the country and besides the unmarked graves of fallen heroes was the resilience of the human spirit of South Africa's people.

The tears shed and the voices choking with emotion reminded us once more that the freedom we have gained we should never take for granted.

The injunction from that process and from the people of South Africa is that we should forgive but not forget. It is that leaders should emerge from all parties and from all walks of life to build the nation on the basis of hope for a future that we should create together.

Personally, I wish to pledge to you and to the nation, that I will at all times be at your service, to the best of my ability to contribute to the maturing of the small human miracle that South Africans conceived by their collective efforts.

Thank you.

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Acquisition method: From website ; Source: ANC Website. Accessioned on 12/12/06 by Helen Joannides




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