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The TRC Special Report Series


Broadcast by the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) every week between 21 April 1996 and 29 March 1998, the eighty seven part television series covered the first two of five years of the TRC hearings, which were concluded at the end of 2000.

Produced and presented by Max du Preez, a well known columnist and founder of the former Vrye Weekblad (renowned for its exposé on South African death squads), the SABC's Truth Commission Special Report won the SA Foreign Correspondents' Award for Outstanding Journalism in 1996. The team of investigative journalists who compiled the weekly reports for Truth Commission Special Report included Gail Reagon, Anneliese Burgess, Benedict Motau, Renè Schiebe, Jann Turner, Jacques Pauw, Hanné Koster, Nantie Steyn, Bronwyn Nicolson, Shenid Bhayroo and Madaleen Bierman.

The weekly reviews of the Truth Commission Special Report team offer invaluable insights into the processes and content of the TRC's work during this period. Presented in an accessible manner - by providing context to public hearings through historic audio-visual material and exclusive interviews with victims, perpetrators, witnesses, specialists in a given field, and more - the series contributed to the TRC's pursuit of revealing the truth about, and engendering a deeper engagement with, South Africa's past conflicts.

Reporting on the structure of the TRC

The function and objectives of the different facets of the TRC is explored in several episodes, from the first in the series and sporadically thereafter (episode 5 and episode 17). The Truth Commission Special Report explains the structure of the TRC as follows:

"The Truth and Reconciliation Commission had seventeen members appointed by President Mandela and is divided into three committees: The Committee on Human Rights Violations, the Committee on Amnesty, and the Committee on Reparation and Rehabilitation. The Committee on Human Rights Violations investigates gross human rights violations, such as torture, murder, kidnapping and assault committed between the dates of the 1st of March 1960 to the 5th of December 1993. It may gather information and hear evidence from victims and witnesses in an attempt to find out who committed human rights violations and why. It can subpoena witnesses. Allied to this is an Investigative Unit. The Committee on Amnesty considers amnesty applications from perpetrators. To qualify for amnesty they must have committed these acts with a political objective. The applicants may get amnesty if certain criteria are met: they must make a full confession, and show that they received orders from a political party or the state. The Committee will also take into account the motive, the context and the gravity of the action. Once the applicants have been granted amnesty they may not be criminally charged for the same act. Amnesty may also be refused, in which case persons remain liable for prosecution. The Committee on Reparation and Rehabilitation considers the plight of the victims of human rights violations and may consider compensation."

The Human Rights Violation (HRV) Committee

The Human Rights Violations Committee hearings, held from 16 April 1996 to 26 June 1997, are covered in the first 44 episodes of Truth Commission Special Report. As the series progressed and the TRC's stance on perpetrators toughened, we see some of the many questions of victims and victims' relatives beginning to be answered.

The Amnesty Committee

The Truth Commission Special Report regularly reported back on amnesty decisions taken and pertinent issues confronting the Amnesty Committee, such as distinguishing between racially and politically motivated violations, especially with regard to those committed by the extreme right-wing and the PAC's military wing, APLA, during the era of negotiations (1990 - 1994). Reports on amnesty hearings dominate the series from episode 30 onwards.

The Reparations and Rehabilitation Committee

The Truth Commission Special Report further reported on the work of the Reparation and Rehabilitation (R & R) Committee. On 23 October 1997 the R & R Committee publicly announced and presented its final recommendations, compiled during the first eighteen months of hearings, to the South African government. Truth Commissioner Dr Wendy Orr, in an interview with Truth Commission Special Report (episode 71), unpacks the five components of R & R policy - including health care, education, financial and emotional assistance and symbolic reparation. The latter component is further explored by the Truth Commission Special Report in segments on the importance of reburials (episode 6) and the construction of national memorials and museums (episode 20, episode 38 and episode 73).

The TRC also hosted a number of hearings focusing on particular sectors and institutions' roles in upholding or opposing apartheid. The purpose of these hearings was to sketch the broader context in which gross violations of human rights took place. Included in these hearings was a focus on the health sector (covered in episode 53), prisons (episode 58), the media (episode 66), the legal community (episode 72), business and labour (episode 74) and the faith community (episode 75).

Special hearings

Special hearings were also held on significant focus areas and events the commission felt needed individual attention such as the Bisho massacre (covered in episode 11 and episode 29), the death of Samora Machel (episode 24), the ‘Trojan Horse' attack (episode 49), the harmful effects apartheid had on children and youth (episode 53), compulsory military service (explored in a brilliant documentary, Borderliners, screened during episode 59 and episode 78), the Caprivi trained hit squad (episode 60), gender-specific violations experienced by women (episode 64), the armed forces (episode 69) and the Mandela United Football Club - MUFC (episode 76, episode 77 and episode 79). The Truth Commission Special Report also screened a BBC documentary on the MUFC, Winnie Mandela and the Missing Witness.

The Commission

The Truth Commission Special Report series offers a 'behind the scenes' look not only at the various components of the TRC process, but also individuals involved in the commission. Episode 1, for example, features an interview with Nocawe Mafu who speaks about her role as counsellor for victims; in episode 22, Deputy Chairperson of the TRC, Alex Boraine, speaks about a second phase of the TRC process as the focus shifted from victims to perpetrators of gross human rights violations; various truth commissioners respond to allegations of racial tension within the commission in episode 32; Archbishop Tutu reflects on the first year of the TRC in episode 31, and again in the last episode 87 of the series, after two years of hearings. The Truth Commission Special Report also provides some background to and personal interviews with individual Truth Commissioners; Hlengiwe Mkhize (see episode 68), Glenda Wildschut (episode 73), Piet Meiring (episode 74), Wynand Malan (episode 75), Alex Boraine (episode 79), Wendy Orr (episode 80), Dumisa Ntsebeza (episode 81), Fazel Randera (episode 82), Denzel Potgieter (episode 83), Bongani Finca (episode 84), Khoza Mgojo (episode 85), Richard Lyster, Mary Burton, Yasmin Sooka, Sisi Khampepe (episode 86) and the HRV Committee's Gauteng office members (episode 53).

In an interview with TRC expert Priscilla Hayner, Special Report looks at the South African TRC in relation to international truth commissions (episode 80).

Historical context

The Truth Commission Special Report series also includes extensive reports on human rights violations not included in the commission's mandate, such as the forceful removal of entire populations under the Group Areas Act of 1950, from areas like Sophiatown (episode 29 and episode 84) and District Six (episode 2); the restriction of free movement regulated by the pass laws (episode 80); Bantu Education (episode 46) and the effects of racial classification - featuring a documentary on Karoo communities of Xhosa, Sotho and Zulu descent who want to reclaim their ethnic identity after living as Coloureds during apartheid (episode 29). In a report back on the first round of political party submissions' and reflections on South Africa's divided past (episode 16), the Truth Commission Special Report presents an audio-visual history of South Africa from the era of colonial arrival, through the most tumultuous years of repression and resistance under apartheid, to the inauguration of President Mandela.

Prominent cases

At the first hearing of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in East London the widows of the PEBCO Three testified about the disappearance of their husbands Qaqawuli Godolozi, Sipho Hashe and Champion Galela (UDF activists who led the Port Elizabeth Black Civic Organisation) on the 8th of May 1985. In the first episode of the Truth Commission Special Report Vlakplaas assassin, turned state witness, Joe Mamasela, told how the men were tortured and killed by the security police. He implicated convicted killer Gideon Niewoudt, who at the time denied ever assaulting or torturing people. However, a year later Niewoudt and eight other security force members applied for amnesty for the abduction and killing of the PEBCO Three, and towards the end of 1997 delivered their accounts of how the men were killed and their ashes strewn in the Fish River. Although not yet confident that they heard the entire truth, relatives of the deceased performed a symbolic reburial on the banks of the Fish River, together with relatives of youth activist Siphiwo Mtimkulu (who met a similar fate as that of the PEBCO Three) to honour their lives and cause.

The Truth Commission Special Report profiled a range of other prominent cases, examining the testimonies of security police officers involved in the killing of Steve Biko, the Cradock Four, the Gugulethu Seven, Griffiths Mxenge, Stanza Bopape and the COSAS Four amongst others. The programme also screened the literal unearthing of the truth about several anti-apartheid activists who had disappeared, including Phila Ndwande, Bhekayena Mkwanazi, Mkwanazi Raymond, Dion Cele and Blessing Ninela. Their bodies were exhumed by the TRC from secret graves on so-called death farms that were pointed out by security policemen in their amnesty applications (episode 39, episode 45, episode 51 and episode 60).

Aside from well known cases, many tales of detention without trial, police torture and killings emphasising the physical and psychological consequences of police brutality were heard from small towns and cities across the country.

Large scale killings

Reflecting on South Africa's psyche of violence and oppression, Max du Preez pointed out to viewers that "massacre has become a cheap word in South Africa." The Truth Commission Special Report gave the South African public a vital way of accessing the painful outpourings of the TRC. This helped many engage with the process.

Indeed, the South African Police took extreme measures to curb mass protests following the demonstrations in Sharpeville in 1960 and Soweto in 1976, and the frequency of massacres increased markedly during the ‘total onslaught' years of the 1980s. Victims of the 1983 Egerton Railway Station massacre (episode 52), the 1985 Langa township massacre (episode 17), the 1985 Umlazi cinema massacre (episode 17), the 1985 Queenstown massacre (episode 12), the Lowveld massacre (episode 18), the 1985 Duncan Village massacre (episode 21), the 1987 KwaMakhutha massacre (episode 17) and the 1988 Trust Feed massacre (episode 13 and episode 24) gave witness before the Human Rights Violations Committee.

Political violence in the era of negotiations and transition

It was the dramatic escalation in violence during the early 1990s, after the unbanning of liberation movements and the release of liberation leaders, that affirmed the belief that a sinister hidden hand or ‘third force' was responsible for much of the killing that was invariably depicted by the government and sections of the media as 'black on black', 'tribal' and 'internecine political violence'. The Truth Commission Special Report investigates so-called ‘black on black' violence triggered by police-assisted gangs and vigilante groups - like the Three Million Gang in Kroonstad (episode 12), the Kabasa gang in KaNyamazane (episode 18), the Khumalo gang in Tokoza (episode 35), the Black Cats in Ermelo (episode 49), and the Witdoeke in Crossroads (episode 52) These forces terrorised and destabilised townships and complemented the state approved, SADF trained Inkatha hit squad involved in large scale killings in Kwazulu-Natal (episode 43).

Police complicity was also evident in the intensifying violent clashes between the IFP and ANC during the era of negotiations, resulting in the 1990 Seven Day War (episode 29), the 1990 and 1991 Bruntville massacres (episode 50) the 1991 Nangalembe night vigil massacre (episode 14) and the 1992 Boipatong massacre (episode 14).

While former 'independent' homelands Transkei and Venda sided with the ANC during negotiations, the leaderships in Ciskei and Bophuthatswana opposed reincorporation into a unitary South Africa. The Truth Commission Special Report investigates SA Military Intelligence's involvement in the 1990 attempt to overthrow Bantu Holomisa in the Transkei (episode 7) and the violent incidents resulting from homeland leaders Oupa Gqozo and Lucas Mangope's resistance to South African takeover: the 1992 Bisho massacre (episode 19 and episode 29) and the 1994 Bophuthatswana coup (episode 10).

Threatened by a majority rule white right wing groups launched a number of attacks in the early 1990s, the most devastating of which was the assassination of Communist Party leader Chris Hani in April 1993. Right wingers Clive Derby-Lewis and Janusz Walus appeared before the Amnesty Committee during the second half of 1997 to ask for amnesty for killing Hani (episode 53, episode 61, episode 62, episode 77).

The era of negotiations and transition was also APLA's most active period. Their military attacks on civilian targets such as the St James Church (episode 56), the Highgate Hotel (episode 52), the Heidelberg tavern (episode 72), the Crazy Beat Disco (episode 81), white farmers in the Orange Free State (episode 41) and American student Amy Biehl (episode 56) are examined, drawing on amnesty testimony from perpetrators of the attacks, and from APLA's official submission to the TRC (episode 69).

Cross border raids

Large scale killings were not restricted to within South Africa's borders. The largest attack launched outside South Africa's borders was the SADF's May 1978 attack on a SWAPO base in Cassinga, Angola, killing hundreds of refugees housed at the centre (episode 6). South African armed forces also targeted individuals, offices of the liberation movements and suspected bases, launching six major raids between 1979 and 1990 into four neighbouring countries. The Truth Commission Special Report gives details of the attempted assassinations of Albie Sachs in Maputo and Father Michel Lapsley in Harare, Zimbabwe (episode 3, episode 6, episode 64) and the 1981 Matola, 1982 Maseru, 1985 Gaborone, 1985 Maseru and 1988 Manzini raids (episode 4, episode 6, episode 8, episode 15, episode 82).

Violations committed by liberation movements

True to the self proclaimed even handedness of the commission, the Special Report, from its first episode, makes it clear that human rights violations were not only committed by the state. The ANC was questioned on their means of fighting a just war in connection with attacks on civilian ‘soft' targets, such as the Silverton bank siege; the Church street, Amanzimtoti and Magoo's bar bombings (episode 3, episode 4 and episode 15); their use of landmines (episode 18); the practice of necklacing (episode 2, episode 7, episode 34, episode 84); violent actions of self defence units (SDU) (episode 49  and episode 84) and the detention, torture and sometimes execution of suspected spies in ANC camps (episode 7, episode 12, episode 27, episode 51, episode 58) all of which are addressed in the ANC's second appearance before the commission (episode 48).


The Truth Commission Special Report captured the following meetings facilitated by the TRC in the spirit of reconciliation: member of the APLA commando, Letlapa Mphahlele, met St James Church attack survivor Charl van Wyk (episode 32), Brian Mitchell met members from the Trust Feed community (episode 46), St. James Church survivors Liezl Ackerman and Gillian Schermbrucher met APLA soldier Gcinikhaya Makoma (episode 57), Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman spoke to former Robben Island Prison warder, Gerald Brand, reinstated as custodian of the Robben Island Museum (episode 63) and Tshidiso Motasi met his parents' killer, former security branch member Paul van Vuuren (episode 51).


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