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TRC Final Report

Page Number (Original) 58

Paragraph Numbers 33 to 41

Volume 1

Chapter 4

Subsection 5


33 The interpretation of the mandate was the outcome of a long process ofwrestling with how the Commission should deal with the above-mentionedobjectives and functions.

34 It was recognised at the outset that the Commission could not carry out all thetasks required of it simultaneously. Thus, it first gave attention to the questionof the restoration of the human and civil dignity of (individual) victims of pastgross human rights violations. It did so by creating opportunities for victims “torelate their own accounts” of the violations they had suffered by givingtestimony at public hearings across the length and breadth of South Africabetween April 1996 and June 1997. These highly publicised hearings werecoupled with an extensive statement-taking drive, investigations, research andso-called ‘section 29’ hearings (where witnesses and alleged perpetrators weresubpoenaed) in order to “establish the fate or whereabouts of victims” and theidentity of those responsible for human rights violations.

35 During the second half of the Commission’s life (from approximately the middleof 1997), the Commission shifted its focus from the stories of individual victimsto an attempt to understand the individual and institutional motives andperspectives which gave rise to the gross violations of human rights underexamination. It enquired into the contexts and causes of these violations andattempted to establish the political and moral accountability of individuals,organisations and institutions. The goal was to provide the grounds for makingrecommendations to prevent future human rights violations. Features of thisphase were public submissions by, and questioning of, political parties, and arange of institutional, sectoral and special hearings that focused on the healthand business sectors, the legal system, the media and faith communities,prisons, women, children and youth, biological and chemical warfare andcompulsory national service. It was also during this period that the majority ofamnesty hearings took place.

36 In the process of interpreting the mandate, a number of difficult and often highlycontested decisions had to be taken.


Victims or survivors

37 From the outset, the commissioners expressed some discomfort with the use of the word ‘victim’. Although the term is commonly enough used when talking about those who suffered under apartheid, it may also be seen to imply a negativity or passivity. Victims are acted upon rather than acting, suffering rather than surviving. The term might therefore be seen as insulting to those who consider that they have survived apartheid or emerged victorious. Unlike the word ‘victim’, the word ‘survivor’ has a positive connotation, implying an ability to overcome adversity and even to be strengthened by it. This does not, of course, mean that many (if not all) survivors were not still experiencing the effects of the trauma they had suffered. It also does not mean that all survived. There were, indeed, many who did not survive and on whose behalf others approached the Commission.

38 However, when dealing with gross human rights violations committed by perpetrators, the person against whom that violation is committed can only be described as a victim, regardless of whether he or she emerged a survivor. In this sense, the state of mind and survival of the person is irrelevant; it is the intention and action of the perpetrator that creates the condition of being a victim.

39 For the sake of consistency, the Commission ultimately decided, in keeping with the language of the Act, to use the word ‘victim’. In doing so, however, it acknowledged that many described as victims might be better described and, indeed, might prefer to be described as ‘survivors’. Many played so crucial a role in the struggle for democracy that even the term ‘survivor’ might seem an inadequate description.


40 The use of the word ‘perpetrator’ to describe all persons found by the Commission to have committed gross violations of human rights was also the source of some discomfort as it made no distinction between the kinds of acts committed, the reasons why they were committed, their consequences or their context. It also does not distinguish between ‘perpetrators’ who committed one act and those whose entire operation and purpose was the commission of such acts.

41 Again, however, the Commission chose to adhere to the terminology of the Act, while recognising sharp differences in the nature and degree of the acts committed.

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