12/19/2013 04:42 EST | Updated 01/25/2014 04:01 EST

Truth And Reconciliation: When Mandela Forgave His Country

SA History

Talk to white South Africans, and many will recall how they feared the prospect of Nelson Mandela's presidency. They weren't certain how a man could resist the temptation of vengeance, particularly when it was wedded to power and its ability to corrupt.

"He had been in jail for 27 years and we weren't sure if someone could be imprisoned for that long and not bear a grudge," Leon Raubenheimer, the CEO of Bay Street investment bank Zed Financial, says. Raubenheimer moved to Canada in 1994, the year Mandela won a landslide election.

Like the more than 8,000 other expatriate South Africans living in Toronto, Raubenheimer was won over by Mandela and his capacity for grace and forgiveness. One of the achievements of Mandela's presidency was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), undertaken to give voice to the victims and the perpetrators of apartheid, a program of segregation and dehumanization that ran from 1960-1994.

Here are five key features of the TRC, which was undertaken shortly after Mandela was elected president.

The Rainbow Nation

Mandela's utopian vision of a multicultural nation living in peace and working together toward economic prosperity was tied to the TRC and how it was executed. "The Commission was often described by its protagonists as a 'miracle' to build the new 'rainbow nation' overcoming the apartheid separation regime," writes author Maria Chiara Rioli in an article that examines the learnings of the TRC.

The Show of Mercy

No one was punished. The TRC was a national, communal healing that aimed to dismantle the generational culture of racism that permeated South African society. But the it was also a highly controversial political program, one that garnered heaps of criticism from apartheid victims and their families. Some pilloried it for allowing perpetrators of brutal crimes to get away with their actions.

Desmond Tutu's Role

Mandela reached out to Archbishop Desmond Tutu -- a neighbour of his on Vilakazi Street in Johannesburg's Soweto district and a fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner -- to be the TRC's chairman. Like Mandela, Tutu was a champion for human rights. His leadership role underscored the TRC's mandate to peacefully resolve the historic conflicts that afflicted the nation. "To forgive is not just to be altruistic. It is the best form of self-interest," Tutu says on his foundation's website.

The Christian Message

Tutu also brought criticism to the TRC. Rioli said of the TRC's opposition: "Critical voices raised, particularly denouncing the imposition of a moral -- signally Christian -- discourse of forgiveness and reconciliation." In a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-religious state, having an Anglican leader -- and one with such a strong voice as Tutu -- upset opponents.


The TRC wasn't a new initiative. Other nations, including Chile following the Pinochet regime, had undertaken similar research. In South Africa, however, the notion of using the TRC as a key instrument of building national unity and identifying the causes of indoctrinated racism was unique. Initiatives since have viewed the TRC as an example to follow. In Canada, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission was formed in 2008 to investigate the causes of the residential school program that impacted First Nations groups.

Manitoba Justice Murray Sinclair is the Chair of the Canadian TRC. Of Mandela's program, he told the CBC: "We learned a great deal from the South African commission in terms of how to engage with survivors of atrocities, how to provide support to them in the course of their testimony, how to ensure that their sense of story was validated, and how to ensure that they understood the importance of not only truth-telling, but the importance of making a contribution to reconciliation."