The drafters of our 1993 Constitution wisely recognised that “the pursuit of national unity, the well-being of all South African citizens and peace require reconciliation between the people of South Africa and the reconstruction of society.”

In 1996 the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established “to promote national unity and reconciliation in a spirit of understanding which transcends the conflicts and divisions of the past by establishing as complete a picture as possible of the causes, nature and extent of the gross violations of human rights which were committed during the period from 1 March 1960 and December 1993, including the antecedents, circumstances, factors and context of such violations, as well · as the perspectives of the victims and the motives and perspectives of the persons responsible for the commission of the violations, by conducting investigations and holding hearings.”

The TRC would comprise between 11 and 17 commissioners who would be “fit and proper persons” who “are impartial and who do not have a high political profile” and who would be selected by the President from a list of 25 candidates drawn up by a special panel.

President Mandela was required – in terms of the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act to consult the cabinet – and specifically Deputy-President FW de Klerk regarding the composition of the commission. De Klerk was shocked when he saw Mandela’s list: the 17 proposed names did not include a single person who could represent the views of the National Party – or of the IFP – two of the three principal parties involved in the conflict. With the exception of two members – Mr Chris de Jager of the right-wing Volksunie party (who soon resigned) and Wynand Malan – who had left the NP some years earlier to establish the Democratic Party – all the commissioners could be expected to support the ANC/struggle interpretation of South African history.

Few people objected to the appointment of the widely respected Archbishop of Cape Town, Desmond Tutu, as the chairperson of the Commission – although he, and the proposed Deputy chairperson, Alex Boraine – could not in any manner be regarded as impartial or as not having a high political profile. Archbishop Tutu had been head of the strongly anti-government South African Council of Churches; he had been awarded the Nobel Peace prize for his principled and outspoken criticism of apartheid; and he had been a patron of the United Democratic Front – which was one of the organisations that had been involved in the conflict that the TRC was supposed to be investigating.

When De Klerk asked President Mandela to appoint a few commissioners who would be able to ensure a more balanced approach, his request was flatly rejected. Despite his growing misgivings, De Klerk and the National Party nevertheless decided to cooperate with the TRC. With a view to assisting the Commission with its task of tryng to unravel the conflict between 1960 and 1994 De Klerk suggested that all the main parties to the conflict should submit reports setting out their perspectives of the conflict, their motivations and their explanations of the roles that they had played.

It was in this spirit that De Klerk made his first submission to the TRC on 21 August 1996. As he said in his introduction; “This submission sets out the National Party’s view of the historical context within which the conflicts of the past should be considered. It provides and analysis of the origin of the conflict; it deals with the perceptions that motivated government policies; it analyses the ensuing conflict and the steps that the government took, on the one hand to defend society against revolution, and on the other to promote a peaceful solution to the complex problems that confronted us. It deals in detail with issues such as amnesty, reconciliation, responsibility, the circumstances that necessitated unconventional strategies and the measures that we took to try to prevent abuses. The submission also sets out the National Party’s views on the framework within which we believe the Commission should carry out its mandate.”

However, it soon transpired that the TRC had very little interest in using the submissions that it received from the various parties involved in the conflict – including separate submissions by the former SAP and the SADF – to construct a balanced and composite overview of South Africa’s recent history.

De Klerk’s growing misgivings proved to be well-founded. In his second submission to the TRC in May 1997 he complained, once again, about the unbalanced composition of the commission which tended “to view the conflict of the past from the broad perspective of the ANC and its allies”. The Commission’s investigations had been “targeted almost exclusively against those associated with the former government and its behaviour at times appears to be increasingly aggressive and prosecutorial. At the same time, comparatively little was said, written or reported about the abuses perpetrated by those who were opposed to the government.” De Klerk also expressed concern over the manner in which the TRC process was beginning to impact the party political process. Some of the Commission’s actions and statements had created the impression that It had adopted a partisan stance against the NP and its leaders. “Concerns were being expressed that the Commission may be misused by the ANC in the run-up to the 1999 elections.”

All this was having a negative impact on the goal of national reconciliation: “Millions of supporters of the NP who enthusiastically welcomed the new South Africa, who voted for reform policies in 1987 and 1989 and in the referendum of 1992 are now beginning to feel rejected and alienated”.
These concerns were confirmed by the TRC’s treatment of FW de Klerk when he presented his second submission on 14 May 1997 and provided written replies to questions that the Commission had submitted to him. The Commission had no interest in De Klerk’s submission and the answers to the TRC’s written questions that he had supplied. Instead, they grilled him on the contents of a 90-page document that it slapped before him at the meeting – without giving him a chance to study its contents beforehand. De Klerk had been ambushed. The experience confirmed that the TRC was going to do everything it could to implicate him in gross violations of human rights.

At a press conference the following day, Archbishop Tutu, close to tears, said that he had been devastated by De Klerk’s failure to accept that the former NP government’s policies had given the security forces a licence to commit gross violations of human rights. Tutu said that he, himself, had told De Klerk about security force involvement in the Boipatong massacre. In due course, the TRC’s own Amnesty Committee found that the security forces had not been involved in the massacre – which had been perpetrated by IFP members from a nearby hostel.

The NP subsequently took the TRC to court and demanded that it should carry out its mandate in accordance with the TRC Act. Tutu apologised – but it was an empty victory – and had no impact on the commission’s determination to make an adverse finding against De Klerk. This they attempted to do in the Commission’s final report. Quite remarkably they found that De Klerk was “an accessory in the commission of gross violations of human rights” – essentially because he had not informed the TRC, during his testimony in 1996, that, toward the end of his presidency Adriaan Vlok, had told him that he intended to apply for amnesty for the bombing of Khotso House. There was no suggestion that De Klerk had known about the bombing any time before it occurred or that he had been involved in it in any manner. De Klerk had not included Vlok’s admission in his testimony because he knew that it would be the subject of an amnesty application by Vlok himself and because the incident had not involved any loss of life, it could not be regarded as a gross violation of human rights.

The NP once again took the TRC to court and succeeded in obtaining an order to have the finding deleted from the final report. Because the report had already been printed the relevant passage had to be blacked out – which simply deepened the controversy and redoubled the recriminations against De Klerk in the media.

In his 2006 book “Rabble Rouser For Peace”, Tutu’s close confidant, John Allen, described the tension that developed between De Klerk and Tutu. He recorded the numerous steps that De Klerk took to try to address violence and acknowledged that “no evidence was ever forthcoming implicating De Klerk in violence.” Significantly, he confirmed the shocking suspicion that the TRC had had an agenda to incriminate De Klerk. He writes of the TRC’s “frustration” at its failure to “pin responsibility for violations of human rights on de Klerk” and acknowledges “the embarrassing weakness of its finding against him.”

According to Allen, the TRC wanted to engage De Klerk “in Tutu’s effort to find a white leader to accept accountability for atrocities.” It was precisely because De Klerk refused to play this role that relations between the two men soured. De Klerk was, indeed, prepared to make the “impassioned” apology for apartheid, which Tutu had acknowledged, and to accept overall accountability for all authorised actions during his presidency. But this was not enough. According to Allen, Tutu wanted him to be another Beyers Naude who would, in effect, endorse the TRC’s view of the struggle.
The truly shocking revelation that emerged from all of this was that the TRC actively wanted to find De Klerk guilty of gross violations of human rights. In their Manichean world view – where the struggle side represented virtue and light – and the former government was the epitome of darkness and evil – it was unacceptable that any leader of the former government should emerge from the TRC process without bearing some or other indelible stain. Such an attitude is, of course, the antithesis of reconciliation.