An Arendtian Analysis of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission

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On May 10th, 1994, Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as the first president of South Africa to have been elected by citizens of all races. The selection of a black man as the nation’s first post-apartheid executive brought the world “to a standstill,” symbolizing a “spectacular victory over injustice, oppression, and evil.”[1] Yet, the marvelous dawn that had shattered the dark night of institutionalized brutality was not the end of the pursuit for justice in South Africa; this new beginning was only a prerequisite for the arduous tasks of reconciling with apartheid’s horrific past, building a renewed nation that could repair the “web of human action.”  Critical to these efforts was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a remarkable pseudo-juridical body whose mandate was to bring to public view the truth of the violence that had been perpetuated by apartheid and also by those who fought against it. Over the course of two and a half years, the three committees of the TRC interviewed thousands of witnesses, victims, and perpetrators, fundamentally altering public discourse about the atrocities committed, the political transition, and the nature of justice itself.

This essay seeks to analyze the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in terms of the political philosophy of Hannah Arendt, one of the twentieth century’s greatest luminaries and a prolific writer on questions that — it will become clear — are at the core of any consideration of the commission’s work. After brief attention to the historical context for the TRC (with specific emphasis on the role of violences and nonviolence in resistance to apartheid), this paper will lay out an overview of the nature of the body’s work during its years of operation and will demonstrate the ways in which the TRC reflects the ideas of Arendt on the relationship between violence and power, and on the nature of authority.[2]  The work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission can be understood as an embodied example of many of Arendt’s deepest insights, demonstrating the significance of this theorist’s work for any account of the modern political world.

1. Historical Background: Resistance to Apartheid

Since the TRC was formed after the conclusion of a struggle lasting several decades, it cannot be properly understood without some knowledge of the events that preceded it. Apartheid — the Afrikaans word for apartness  — had its roots in a long history of racial discrimination and oppression that emerged while South Africa was still a dominion of the British Commonwealth. These practices were transformed into a concrete, formal system of social control after the 1948 electoral victory of the white National Party; their design and implementation were guided primarily by Hendrik Verwoerd, who would become Prime Minister in 1958.[3] Under this system, South Africans were classified strictly according to four racial groups — European/white, Indian, Coloured (mixed race), and African. Despite the fact that this last division contained the vast majority of the population, it was subjected to the strictest controls.  The black South African experience was symbolized by the passbook, a legal document in which the permissions required to travel in “white areas” were recorded. Regardless of purpose or intent, travel outside their “racially zoned townships” was strictly prohibited without the proper indications in one’s passbook.[4] Apartheid was thus characterized by this enforced separation of peoples, implemented through “proletarian state policy.”[5]

With all legislative, executive, and judicial control concentrated in the hands of whites, black South Africans were forced to establish their own independent political entities, which were increasingly criminalized as apartheid continued to take root. The most prominent among these was the African National Congress, which predated the establishment of formalized apartheid. Formed in 1912 to “bring all Africans together as one people to defend their rights and freedoms,” the ANC became the leading representative of black residents of the country.[6] In the 1950s the ANC led what was called the “Defiance Campaign,” a protracted mass movement of civil disobedience against apartheid regulations. Blacks all over the country consciously disobeyed the passbooks laws and other regulations, but the movement hit setbacks when “violent riots broke out” in 1953 and the government responded with violence and corporal punishment.[7] Yet nonviolent resistance — comparable in many respects to more famous movements led by Mohandas Gandhi in India and Martin Luther King, Jr., in the American South — continued, culminating in a march of 5,000 deliberately pass-less Africans on a police station in Sharpeville. The protest was met with a violent response by the police, who fired into the crowd. Dozens of black South Africans were killed, and thousands more were arrested in the ensuing weeks as protests and riots spread throughout the country.[8]

Nelson Mandela, a prominent leader of the ANC who had been instrumental in many aspects of the nonviolent movement, now called for an armed response, and thus “the ANC took up arms against the South African Government in 1961.”9  Although nonviolent tactics such as strikes, boycotts, and protests continued over the next decades, the liberation movement concluded that civil disobedience alone would fail, making a conscious effort to adopt violent means as a central part of the resistance to the institutional oppression they faced. It was thus during the thirty-four years between the Sharpeville Massacre and the inauguration of Mandela — who famously spent most of those years as a political prisoner on Robben Island — that atrocities were carried out on both sides, as the black majority fought for its freedom from the white minority that, as a result of benefitting from oppression for so many years, clung desperately and violently to its total power. These three decades would be the subject to the investigations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a choice of time period that was therefore “not entirely” arbitrary and that presented the commission with a relatively “limited and manageable” focus.10 Politically motivated killings, kidnappings, torture, and other human rights violations occurred throughout these dark years, and the memory of these horrors still stood in the foreground of the public consciousness even after Mandela assumed office.

2. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission

It was in this historical context, then, that the new president of the unified nation faced the question of how to fashion justice in a time of transition. Two obvious options were available — Nuremburg-style tribunals and national amnesia — both of these were rejected quickly as not being viable paths forward. As Archbishop Tutu, the TRC’s chairman, put it, the “victor’s justice” of Nuremburg was simply not realistic for the post-apartheid government. Neither the ANC and its allies nor the white government had “won the decisive victory that would have enabled it” to carry out such a process; the country had entered an age of power-sharing democracy, and had not simply reversed the status quo of lopsided control.11 In a new order that — though precipitated by armed struggle — was emerging not from military conquest but from “negotiated settlement,” all “in South Africa had to live with one another,” and so the option of simply setting up courts for one “side” to judge and sentence the other was utterly untenable.12

National amnesia, the decision to collectively forget the atrocities of the past by issuing a blanket amnesty for all offenders and for all acts, was rejected as similarly unrealistic for rebuilding South African society. Tutu wrote  that “unless we look the beast in the eye we find it has an uncanny habit of returning to hold us hostage.”13 It was thus clear that a full reckoning of past terrors would be necessary for the future’s security, requiring the rejection of the temptation of collective forgetting. And because the historical facts of apartheid were not simply events that remained in social memory but were also integral parts of “the identity of who” the victims of that oppression were, to simply forget would have been to deny a fundamental component of the self-understanding of the black majority.14 With neither tribunals nor amnesia a viable option, a third way was needed — and it was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that provided this extraordinary alternative.

Following Mandela’s inauguration, preparation for the commission began quickly. In mid-1995 the new Parliament passed into law the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act, which provided the “most complex and sophisticated mandate for any truth commission to date.”15 Three committees comprised the TRC.16 The Human Rights Violations Committee (HRV) had the task of investigating human rights abuses under apartheid and by the liberation movement, and its members were tasked with determining “the identity of the victims, their fate or present whereabouts, and the nature and extent of the harm they have suffered.” The HRV could refer victims to the Reparation and Rehabilitation Committee (R&R), which had the responsibility not only to grant limited reparations to those who had suffered but also to more broadly  draw up “policy proposals and recommendations on rehabilitation and healing of survivors, their families and communities at large.” Finally, the Amnesty Committee (AC) considered applications for amnesty by those who had carried out “any act, omission or offence associated with a political objective” during the three decades that fell under the TRC’s purview; a full disclosure of all acts by the applicant was required for any amnesty, and the burden of proof for demonstrating such disclosure fell upon the confessors themselves. The function of this committee, in conjunction with the other two, was to bring the truth of all that had happened out into the public view in order to better “look the beast in the eye.” Now, the past could no longer hold South African society hostage, even in memory. (The committee considered over seven thousand applications for amnesty, granting several hundred of them during the three years of its operation.)17 Acting together, the three committees served to rehabilitate both victims and perpetrators, to provide reparations and forgiveness, and, most importantly, to shine the light of truth into the darkness of the violence that apartheid had engendered, thereby allowing a new society based on rehabilitation and reconciliation among all parties to be constructed.

It is striking that in the wake of a resistance movement that had consciously turned away from relying solely on nonviolence as an adequate political tactic, it was precisely a fundamentally nonviolent conception of justice that emerged to address the nation’s transitional dilemmas. Mandela’s election-day proclamation of a “a new era of hope, of reconciliation, of nation-building” signaled that justice would be established in the united South Africa, but that it would not at its core be based on punitive measures.18 Tutu describes the goal of the TRC as going “beyond retributive justice to restorative justice,” a notion of justice as consisting in repairing human relationships rather than simply punishing those who damaged them in the first place.19 Tutu explicitly connects this notion of restorative justice to the traditional idea of ubuntu, which has at its center the “healing of breaches, the redressing of imbalances, the restoration of broken relationships, [and] a seeking to rehabilitate both the victim and the perpetrator”; this worldview rests in large part on the saying that a “person is a person through other persons” and on the understanding that, because the humanity of each is constituted by the humanity of all, forgiveness itself is “the best form of self-interest.”20 This notion of justice does not entirely rule out violence, but its conceptual core embraces a nonviolent orientation toward other persons in the world. Of course, it is important to note that the historical link, if any, between the Gandhian-style tradition of nonviolence and the establishment of the TRC is contested. For example, André du Toit, the director of the graduate program in Justice and Transformation at the University of Cape Town, believes that “there are not any direct linkages between the [Gandhian] tradition of non-violent resistance and the TRC.”21 But regardless of their historical relationship, there is clearly a conceptual connection between the ubuntu of the TRC and the satyagraha of Gandhi; a nonviolent core is present in both, no matter how independently the notions may have developed in their different contexts.

3. The TRC as Action-in-concert: Arendt on Violence and Power

We are now better equipped to examine the TRC in light of the political philosophy of Hannah Arendt. As indicated, this essay will first begin with an analysis in terms of the relationship between violence and power, before moving on to a consideration of authority. In her classic text On Violence, written in 1969 at the height of the era’s often violent student protests in American and European universities, Arendt lays out a series of careful conceptual distinctions between such terms as strength, authority, violence, and power, intending with this methodological move to bring clarity to often muddied waters. Her careful analysis is motivated by a conviction that these terms, which are so often used interchangeably, actually “refer to distinct, different phenomena,” the elision of which can cause not just linguistic carelessness but true “blindness to the realities they correspond to.”22 The end result of Arendt’s examination is the startling and unintuitive conclusion that the concepts of power and violence are actually opposites, for “where the one rules absolutely, the other is absent.”23

In Arendt’s theoretical account, power is never individual but exists only in groups, for it “corresponds to the human ability not just to act but to act in concert.” It is for this reason an end itself, an “absolute,” requiring legitimacy but never justification, for it arises naturally and inherently from all collective action among persons in the world. In contrast, violence is fundamentally instrumental; it is a means, not an end, always requiring implements and intrinsically intended to increase “natural strength” for the achievement of some other goal. The distinction is much like that between cooperation and coercion; power is the phenomenon that exists in all political action, that which characterizes collective public deeds, whereas violence is merely the tool that is sometimes used when other things do not suffice to achieve the relevant objective. This explains why Arendt regards the two as opposites: coercion is what one turns to when cooperation breaks down. Where there is total cooperation, there is no coercion whatsoever, and where there is total coercion, there is no cooperation in any real sense. Arendt concludes, therefore, that power is bound with the essence of government but that violence is not, even though governments must often resort to violence when their power fails or is thrown into question. No matter how often power and violence are intertwined empirically, the theoretical distinction between them could not be more stark; in every instance of their alignment, there is a submerged tension that threatens the stability of whatever system links them together. (One could plausibly argue that this explains in part why violent crackdowns often weaken governments in the long term.)

On the strength of this account, Arendt asserts that “it is not correct to think of the opposite of violence as nonviolence” for to “speak of nonviolent power is actually redundant”; violence can destroy, but never create, power, which is fundamentally nonviolent, as it arises from the shared respect of cooperative action.24 The philosophical underpinnings of this view are expressed more fully in her magnum opus, The Human Condition, wherein she writes that power “corresponds to the condition of plurality” — that is, to “the fact that men, not Man, live on the earth and inhabit the world.”25 Because humans, in all their diversity, provide in their plurality the fundamental underpinnings of public political power, the respect for the dignity of other persons that is at the core of nonviolence is of a piece with power itself. Human plurality leads to nonviolent power: this is the basic starting place of the worldview that illuminates Arendt’s political theory.

With Arendt’s views explained in this way, it becomes easy to see how the Truth and Reconciliation Commission embodies many of the principles of her understanding of power and violence. For example, the emphasis on human plurality that provides the philosophical basis for her account is mirrored in many respects by the idea of ubuntu that lay behind the work of the TRC. Tutu, in his exploration of this concept, declares that it means in part, “‘I am human because I belong. I participate, I share,’” and so too does Arendt declare that plurality means that “to live” can be synonymous to the phrase “to be among men,” as it did for the Romans.26 These two ideas each emphasize that experiencing and relying on others is a prerequisite for constituting one’s own life in the world.

As we have seen, the idea of ubuntu underlays the fundamental nonviolence of the TRC. The implication of this, in light of the parallel with plurality and the way that plurality is the precondition for power, is that the TRC is a striking embodiment of political power in the Arendtian sense. By turning away from notions of justice based in violence, the commission endorsed a vision of South African society rooted in cooperation rather than coercion. Throughout the three tumultuous decades with which the commission was concerned, the violence of the state — in killing protestors, in arresting and torturing resistance leaders, and in its many other forms — demonstrated in the laboratory of history Arendt’s claim that “violence appears where power is in jeopardy,” for the coercive means of the government were employed to preserve the collective ability of white South Africans to act together apart from the participation of blacks.27 This ultimately failed, unsurprisingly in light of Arendt’s conclusions, and so the new social order that emerged necessitated different ways of establishing and preserving power.

If power is indeed what arises from human action-in-concert, what better example of the power of the new nation could there have been than the TRC? This organization, a single commission comprising members of each of the country’s major demographic subdivisions, both represented and embodied the broader cooperation that was emerging among the people of South Africa. In its nonviolence, in its willingness to grant amnesty to offenders, and in its efforts to bring victims back into the fold of political order, it demonstrated that the united country was indeed full of power in the fundamentally Arendtian sense. The lack of violence in its tools and actions demonstrated the security and stability of the power that was being established, which had an ever-decreasing need to use coercion to maintain itself. This is not to deny, of course, that there was not still much violence in South African society and even in aspects of the TRC’s work; for example, perpetrators who were not granted amnesty could still be arrested and prosecuted. But facts such as these should remind us that, as Arendt herself emphasized, the distinctions between power, violence and other concepts that she laid out “hardly ever correspond to watertight compartments in the real world,” but are instead penetrating analytical tools that allow us to better understand the complexities and tensions of political phenomena around us.28 Arendt’s recognition of the reality of the infusion of violence into many areas of political life thus provides support for the claim that the TRC embodied her understanding of power — power, yes, in all its complexity, in all its imperfection, but also in its promise of a nonviolent alternative to the coercion and injustice that darkens human society. The Commission, at its core, thus showed the world the truth of the Arendtian claim that power is fundamentally cooperative, that it arises from mutual respect and collective action, and that it can survive and flourish even in the wake of great violence.

4. The TRC as Founding Act: Arendt on Authority

Among the other political terms that Arendt includes in the careful analytic of On Violence is authority. Arendt notes that it is “the most elusive of these phenomena,” describing it as requiring “neither coercion nor persuasion” to effect obedience, being characterized by immediate recognition.29 Although she points out the ways in which power and authority are often confused, she declines to provide a systematic account of the nature or origins of the latter in this short work. But in her earlier, longer book On Revolution, she lays out a much fuller account of how authority can come about, and it is to this work that this paper now turns in order to prepare the way for an examination of the TRC in terms of this equally important concept.

In On Revolution, Arendt examines the question of how to establish authority through the problems associated with founding a republic, as exemplified by the competing models of the French and American Revolutions. With full cognizance of the way that most historical claims to authority before these revolutions were grounded in appeal to a divine absolute, Arendt is motivated by a desire to give an account of authority that can preserve it as both fully human and (at least potentially) fully democratic. In earlier political contexts, the appeal to the absolute could interrupt the “vicious circles” of the need to justify human laws on some higher grounding and the need also to legitimate the foundation of a new political body itself.30 But, even in societies such as the United States or South Africa, where religious language and religious beliefs are always at play in moments of political transition, some notion of authority must emerge that can legitimate its establishment even to those who are not comforted by religious sanction, for we live today in a pluralistic, though not exactly secular, age. This problem is of course particularly potent for situations of democratic founding, in which those who have political power and are using it to build a new order nevertheless seem to lack the authority of an existing constitution to ground their actions.

Arendt’s solution to this problem is to appeal to what she calls human natality. that is, birth as a fundamental part of the “most general condition of human existence.”31 Though a full analysis of her concept of natality would far exceed the scope of this essay, it will suffice here to note that it entails for Arendt  the capacity of making new beginnings, a capability that is inherent in the human condition and signified by and embodied in every human birth.32 But because the condition of natality gives human action the possibility of forming new beginnings, the establishment of a new constitution does not require appeal to a divine source of legitimacy for its authority. Rather, authority is contained in the act of foundation itself.33 The act of foundation allows for later “augmentation,” occurring in “uninterrupted continuity” which has “inherent authority” because of its connection to that original new beginning.34 Arendt’s understanding of authority ultimately rests therefore on a certain view of the meaning and nature of beginnings as phenomena that can arise through the power of collective human action.

Consider in this light Desmond Tutu’s description of the commission’s work: “[The nation had to] move on to forgiveness, because without it there was no future … We are saying here is a chance to make a new beginning.35 In Tutu’s understanding of the TRC, the acts of personal and political forgiveness that lay at the heart of its work were not intended merely to draw a horrific chapter of history to a conclusion — rather, they acted to create a beginning for the era that lay ahead. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a founding act in the Arendtian sense, not merely embodying power but also creating authority, for it interrupted the crystallizing force of a radical beginning with vicious circles that hinder all attempts to legitimate both law and constitution in some abstract or transcendent way. The TRC rested fundamentally on the human capacity of natality; without the always-present promise of new beginnings provided by the fact of human birth, no founding act as dramatic as that embodied by the commission could ever have come about.

This understanding of the TRC as a founding act makes sense when one remembers that the constitutional background for its work came from the 1993 interim Constitution, which was designed to facilitate the transition by providing a “historic bridge between the past … and a future” that would look very different indeed.36 This document was not intended to be a long-term foundation for society; it was replaced in 1996 (during the TRC process) by a fuller constitution that remains in effect to this day.37 Instead, this interim document was designed to facilitate those acts of establishment that would be necessary for legitimate authority in the future; it was self-consciously transitional, paving the way for new beginnings. As the quoted selection — which comes from a section of the interim constitution entitled “National Unity and Reconciliation” — has made clear, the work that would be taken up by the TRC was understood to be absolutely essential to the formation of these fresh foundations, lying at the conceptual and legal core of the process that would bring the newly democratic nation into existence. 


As we have seen, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission embodied the ideas of Hannah Arendt on the nature of power and the question of authority. Whatever its flaws, the proud legacy of the TRC in the world today attests to the unprecedented success of its work; in the years that have followed, it has become a model for similar efforts in nations around the world, demonstrating that alternatives to large-scale retribution and to further institutionalization of violence are not only possible in theory but can be desirable in practice. It has thus affirmed the incisiveness and the enduring relevance of Arendt’s insights, which have yielded analytical and explanatory results in examining the commission despite having been produced many years before its inception. In the end, therefore, the TRC affirms for all in the world the promise that human plurality and diversity can be sources of strength rather than weakness, that power can exist without violence, and that authority can be rightly founded even after the darkest of times; in short, the commission reminds us always that, no matter how dire the circumstances, “every end in history necessarily contains a new beginning,” for “beginning is the supreme capacity of man.”38

Works Cited

Ackerman, Peter, and Jack Duvall. A Force More Powerful. New York: Palgrave, 2000. Print.

“Amnesty Hearings and Decisions.” Department of Justice and Constitutional Development, South Africa, 2009. Web. 04 May 2012. <>.

Arendt, Hannah. On Revolution. New York: Penguin, 1965. Print.

—. On Violence. New York: Harcourt, Brace &, 1970. Print.

—. The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1958. Print.

—. The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1966. Print.

“A Brief History of the African National Congress.” African National Congress, 2011. Web. 04 May 2012. <>.

“The Certification Process.” Constitutional Court of South Africa. Web. 06 May 2012. <>.

“The Committees of the TRC.” Department of Justice and Constitutional Development, South Africa, 2009. Web. 04 May 2012. <>.

Du Toit, André. “Research Project in South Africa.” Message to the author. 24 Apr. 2012. E-mail.

Hayner, Priscilla B. Unspeakable Truths: Transitional Justice and the Challenge of Truth Commissions. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Routledge, 2011. Print.

“Nelson Mandela: Prisoner Turned President.” BBC News. BBC, 28 Oct. 1998. Web. 04 May 2012. <>.

Tutu, Desmond. No Future without Forgiveness. New York: Doubleday, 1999. Print.

Young-Bruehl, Elisabeth. Why Arendt Matters. New Haven: Yale UP, 2006. Print.

[1] Desmond Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness (New York: Doubleday, 1999), 9, 11.

[2] Elizabeth Young-Bruehl, in her book Why Arendt Matters (New Haven: Yale UP, 2006), analyzes the TRC in terms of Arendt’s work on forgiveness, which is perhaps the most obvious line of approach for a project such as this. Though this essay is informed by Young-Bruehl’s work, I will avoid simply replicating her conclusions by focusing not on forgiveness but on the other issues that have been noted.

[3] Peter Ackerman and Jack Duvall, A Force More Powerful (New York: Palgrave, 2000), 337.

[4] Ibid, 338.

[5] Young-Bruehl, 114.  

[6] A Brief History of the African National Congress.

[7] Ackerman and Duvall, 339.

[8] Ibid, 340.

9 Ibid, and A Brief History of the African National Congress.

10 No Future Without Forgiveness, 104.

11 Ibid, 20.

12 Ibid, 21.

13 Ibid, 28.

14 Ibid, 29.

15 Priscilla B. Hayner, Unspeakable Truths (New York, NY: Routledge, 2011), 27.

16 The summary that follows is based on and includes quotes from The Committees of the TRC.

17 Amnesty Hearings and Decisions.

18 Nelson Mandela: Prisoner Turned President.

19 No Future Without Forgiveness, 260.

20 Ibid, 54-5; 31.

21 Email to the author, 24 April 2012.

22 Arendt, On Violence, 43.

23 Ibid, 56. The explicative discussion, with quotations, in the following paragraph draws exclusively from pp. 44-56 of the same text.

24 Ibid, 56.

25 Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1958), 201, 7.

26 No Future Without Forgiveness, 31, and The Human Condition, 7-8.

27 On Violence (New York: Harcourt, Brace &, 1970), 56.

28 Ibid, 46.

29 Ibid, 45.

30 Arendt, On Revolution (New York: Penguin, 1965), 152ff.

31 The Human Condition, 8.

32 Cf. the conclusion of Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1966).

33 On Revolution, 191.

34 Ibid, 193.

35 No Future Without Forgiveness, 260, 273, emphasis added.

36 1993 interim constitution, quoted in No Future without Forgiveness, 45.

37 The Certification Process.

38 Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, 478-9.


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