The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) formed part of what is now regarded as an emergent trend of official state attempts at coming to terms with the aftermath of repressive regimes. This kind ofprocess, by necessity, involves a myriad of political, ethical and ofter also very personal complexities. In the same way as previous commissions of this kind, the TRC had to find a balance between so-called “truth finding”, retribution, reparations and the rather elusive concept of reconciliation. The mandate contained in the title of the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act (the 1995 Act) already established what were to be regarded as the priority concerns, namely “truth” and “reconciliation”. In the context of transitional justice this was regarded by many as a “middle road”, somewhere between impunity/amnesia at the one extreme and retribution/prosecution on the other. However, in the painstaking process of structuring the TRC proceedings it became clear that the trump ingredient, the panacea, was the concept of “truth”.
It is important to remember, first, that this rather fragile process took place under heavy influences of divergent political concerns, and, second, that due to the volatility of the political situation and the real danger of an outbreak of uncontrollable violence, the stakes were regarded as extremely high. Although the TRC process is now regarded as part of the legal and social history of South Africa, it is important to not relegate the insights gained at the time of the hearings to a fixed historical archive, but to rather regard it as an ongoing and open process mediating between past and future. Evidently the past, even a very dramatic past, as experienced by many South Africans, gets overtaken by new political agendas and alliances and new social problems. There is, however, an enduring legacy of a nation struggling, still struggling, in the aftermath of a painful past. The argument will be that keeping the past open, not to seal the archive as “done and dusted”, even in the face of new and difficult circumstances, is called for.