The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in post-apartheid South Africa has been hailed as the standard for working for restorative justice in the contemporary world.

One of the misunderstandings surrounding the work of the commission, however, involves the relationship between the forgiveness, reconciliation, and amnesty offered by the commission in relation to the coercive power of the state.

David Schmidtz, in his recent book Elements of Justice, writes,

South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission set out in 1995 to document human rights abuses between 1960 and 1994. Part of its mandate is to grant amnesty to those who cooperate in documenting relevant facts. Now, these crimes were not ancient. It was not a situation where innocent people were being asked to pay for crimes of their ancestors. Many of apartheid’s perpetrators were very much alive, and by no means beyond the reach of the law. Yet, even so, Mandela’s goal (like Desmond Tutu’s) was reconciliation, not revenge. He wanted to prevent the legacy of apartheid from continuing to hang over future generations (214).

It is important to note that the cooperation of many these witnesses was accomplished by means of the threat of punitive action. The offer of amnesty was a carrot only in relation to the overarching threat of the stick.

Where the carrot wasn’t taken, the stick must still be used. And so we find that some South African apartheid-era officials who did not cooperate with the commission are now being charged with crimes.

These officials “will be tried for a 1989 attack on the Rev. Frank Chikane, who, at the time, was the general secretary of the South African Council of Churches, an organization at the forefront of the struggle against minority white rule.”

This news is noteworthy for two reasons. First, “This is the first case of the prosecution of apartheid-era atrocities in which alleged perpetrators were denied or did not seek amnesty from South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was led by Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, retired archbishop Desmond Tutu.”

And second, it shows just how dependent on the threat of force the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission really is. This is why Christopher D. Marshall, in his work Beyond Retribution, notes that the TRC occupies a mediating position between the proceedings of war crimes tribunals like Nuremberg and complete offers of amnesty among some Latin American nations.

It’s my hope to explore the theoretical connections between reconciliation and punishment in a paper on restorative justice that I’m currently researching.