Truth, National Reconciliation and Cultural Interventions: Lessons Learned from the South African TRC




Bolton, Michaela

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The Bernard and Audre Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice


The end of Apartheid marked the beginning of a South Africa that belongs to all who live in it. It was recognised by the Constitution that the pursuit of national unity required reconciliation. In response, the Truth and Reconciliation Committee (“TRC”) was established. Its central focus was to “promote unity and reconciliation in a spirit of understanding which transcends the conflicts and divisions of the past”.

The TRC identified at least three levels at which reconciliation needs to take place: reconciliation between victims and perpetrators; reconciliation at the community level; and reconciliation between the beneficiaries and the victims of the crime of Apartheid.

At the outset, the TRC recognised the magnitude of this exercise. Its quest for truth was viewed as a contribution to a much longer-term goal. The TRC gave its attention to uncovering the truth about gross violations of human rights. The decision was made to focus not on the effects of laws passed by the Apartheid government, but on human rights violations committed as specific political-criminal acts against specific individuals. Reconciliation at the first level (that between victims and perpetrators) was prioritised at the expense of second- and third-level reconciliation.

This begs the question of how the reconciliatory dialogue initiated by the TRC could be extended to the people that fell outside of the TRC’s purview. I argue that one of the most effective ways to pursue reconciliation at a community and national level is through cultural interventions. Often neglected as a mechanism of transitional justice, these interventions may be an integral stepping stone between the first-level individual reconciliation aspired to by a truth commission, and the broader reconciliation so indispensable after a regime of systemic human rights abuses.



Michaela Bolton studied law and philosophy before obtaining her LL.B. degree from the University of Cape Town, South Africa. During her university years, she participated in various community service initiatives in disempowered South African communities. This exposure contributed to her keen interest in the law’s ability to deliver a society from a past of systemic human rights abuses, to a reality of unity and dignity. Michaela is an admitted attorney in South Africa and hopes to return to practice in the public interest sector. She is currently enrolled in New York University School of Law’s LL.M. program, where she is a Transitional Justice Leadership Scholar at the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice. Her research interests include constitutional law, human rights, legal philosophy and transitional justice.

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