Glenda Wildschut

A new chapter in the history of South Africa began with the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990, changing history and leading four years later to his election as President when the apartheid system officially ended. The rebuilding of society is a difficult process, and is still continuing. Here too, the question arises as to how to approach and deal with history (and how to use it to create a new society), and what the consequences are for the education system and adult education. A first step was the establishment oft he South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in which the author served as a Commissioner between 1995 and 1998. She is a nurse educator and has worked as an educator and trainer of adults for most of her professional life. She is currently involved with leadership development, training and sup-port, and she coaches and mentors extensively.

Some Lessons for Education to be Learned from the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission

In an interesting chronicle of conflict resolution efforts in South Africa, Susan Marks recounts in her book, "Watching the Wind", the events that led to the release of Nelson Mandela and the unbanning of the liberation movements. She describes vividly the convergence of nearly eighty thousand people on the central square in Cape Town called the Grand Parade: the euphoria, dancing and waving of the singing crowd welcoming a man who had not been seen for twenty-seven years but was now being greeted as a hero, a saviour and the father of a soon to be free South Africa. Just nine days before the release of Nelson Mandela, I found myself gathered with thousands of people on another square, Greenmarket Square, waiting to proceed as protesters to another opening of a Whites only parliament. The square borders on newspaper house, which seemed then unusually quiet. I paid little attention to it, worrying rather about what the police response would be this time around. We had been arrested, sprayed with purple dye, "shambokked" and tortured - what would happen today? No sooner had this thought crossed my mind than spontaneous applause erupted in the crowd. People started hugging each other - the news had been leaked that De Klerk was about to announce the unbanning of political organizations and the release of political prisoners:

"It is time for us to break the cycle of violence and to break through to peace and reconciliation. The overall aims to which we are aspiring include a new democratic constitution, universal franchise... and equality before an independent judiciary."

Around the country people looked at each other incredulously. What did this extraordinary speech mean? I experienced the same sense of disbelief and amazement again in the mayoral suite at the City Hall when I saw Mandela stride in with his unmistakable regal bearing and address the small local and international crowd of dignitaries before speaking to the masses on the Parade. South African life was to change for ever after that day.

The political negotiations that followed were held under very difficult circumstances. The country was besieged by political and criminal violence; it was hard to tell which was which. One of the final issues to be negotiated was the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. After intense debate, the negotiators finally agreed that the issue of accountability for the perpetration of human rights violations on all sides of the conflict needed to be addressed. Conditional amnesty for perpetrators was guaranteed while victims would be invited to speak of the violations and be given reparations.

So, from the outset the TRC faced a formidable task. Unlike the Latin American Commissions, which were rebuilding moral and political communities that had at least in theory pre-existed the periods of oppression, the South African Commission was creating an entirely new and hitherto inconceivable state that had never existed. As Commissioners we had to navigate the difficult task of building a bridge between the past and the present, a link that fully acknowledged the harm that had occurred during the reign of apartheid, and the new society that embraced equality. As the interim constitution described it,

"between the past of a deeply divided society characterized by strife, conflict, untold suffering and injustice, and a future founded on the recognition of human rights, democracy, and peaceful coexistence and developing opportunities for all South Africans, irrespective of colour, race, class, belief or sex".

Institutional Hearings

Soon after its establishment, the Commission had to wrestle with the question of what was the backdrop against which gross violations of human rights had occurred. Without some sense of the "antecedents, circumstances, factors and context", it was almost impossible to understand how people who considered themselves ordinary, decent and God-fearing had, over the years, found themselves turning a blind eye to a system which impoverished, oppressed and violated the lives of so many of their fellow citizens.

It was in a search for the beginning of an answer to these questions that the Commission decided to host a number of institutional hearings for influential sectors of apartheid society. A number were identified: the media, business, prisons, the faith community, the legal sector and the health sector. All these sectors had come under attack for what was seen by some as their complicity with the apartheid system. What the Commission sought to find out was how these institutions saw themselves and how, when they were brought together with those who had opposed them, a part of the enigma of the South African evil could be unravelled.

The education system, notably, was not included in the institutional hearings. This I believe was a shortcoming on the part of the Commission as it was in education that most damage to this society was done. However, after the Commission, much was done to examine its work carefully and to incorporate its findings into the transformation of the education system.

Lessons for Education from the TRC

Citizenship Education and Values

The TRC offered a rich source of common political identity committed to constitutional democracy and human rights, and it is therefore an important starting point for citizenship education. Although it is not possible to draw on the TRC to create a unified narrative around which citizens can commonly identify because it exposes our history as divisive, it does provide a focus for what Booth (1999) calls "constitutional patriotism". By this he means "an alternative to nationalism and the moral significance that nationalism attributes to the past."

Just as the TRC was ending its work, the Department of Education (DOE) was defining the social mandate of the education system. Naledi Pandor is quoted as saying,

"I believe that one of the TRC's lessons for the new millennium is that a new set of values and norms can and must offer different outcomes through education. We should actively address the values and norms we convey in our schools in order to entrench a positive educational framework in South Africa."

Many have questioned what those values and norms are. I would argue that they are human rights and respect for humanity or ubuntu. The strong focus on the notions of truth and reconciliation, with the underlying values of respect for humanity, make a powerful basis for nation building, which I believe is an important aspect of education - educating for the development of valued citizens or, more accurately, democratic citizenship.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu had this to say about ubuntu:

"(Ubuntu) speaks of the very essence of being human... ,we say 'a person is a person' through other people. It is not 7 think therefore I am.' It says rather: 7 am human because I belong.' I participate, I share. A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good; for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole" (1999, p. 34).

The term ubuntu, used in this way, expresses individual solidarity within a community and therefore provides the TRC with a moral root to reconciliation and respect for human dignity.

Ubuntu and human dignity seemed to be the strong thrust of Kader Asmal's tenure as Minister of Education. He tried to reconcile the aims of the TRC and the transformation of education. Two commissions concerned with the role of education in citizenship were set up by him during his term. Professor Njabulo Ndebele chaired a panel to address the crisis within the study of the past and the kinds of knowledge with which history and archaeology could enhance the lives and learning experiences of students. Dr Wilmot James chaired the Values in Education Committee. Both these committees had the strong desire to break with the apartheid past and to mould new citizens able to navigate a democratic environment.

It seems, at least at a policy level to a relative outsider to education like me, that the Department draws on a human rights based approach and strong elements of ubuntu. A cursory look at the National Qualifications Framework (NQF) reveals that it prescribes that students should "show responsibility toward the environment and the health of others" and show awareness of the importance of, among other things, "responsible citizenship" and "cultural sensitivity" (Bulletin of the South African Qualifications Authority, May 1997). Equally, educators are expected to play "a community, citizenship and pastoral care role", to practise and promote "a critical, committed and ethical attitude towards developing a sense of respect and responsibility towards others..." (DOE, 2000a, p. 13).


The Manifesto on Values, Education and Democracy which emerged out of the work of Dr Wilmot James listed six values - equity, tolerance, multilingualism, openness, accountability and social honour. Later, these values were expanded to include social justice, respect for the rule of law, respect and reconciliation.

The value of reconciliation as expressed in the Manifesto is remark-ably a carbon copy of the TRC's definition of reconciliation:

"Reconciliation is impossible without the acknowledgement and understanding of South Africa's complex, difficult but rich history. The conditions of peace, of wellbeing and of unity - adhering to a common identity, a common notion of South Africanness - flow naturally from the value of reconciliation. But, as the postscript of the interim constitution makes clear, they also stem from active engagement in the 'reconstruction of society', for, as President Mbeki has often said, there can be no reconciliation without trans-formation."

Truth and Reconciliation in the History Curriculum

One of the strong recommendations of the TRC was the inclusion in the history curriculum of the work of the TRC and its findings. Of course, truth and reconciliation are difficult notions. They are vexed problems in the teaching of history. But educators agree that teaching history plays a role in nation building, especially in the area of civic responsibility. The panel on History and Archaeology warned, though, that history should not be exclusivist or multiethnic but rather that learners should gain a broad knowledge of all people of South Africa as a basis for forging a shared human past, and that it should be told as a history not just of race "but a complex chemistry of colour, class and gender" (DOE, 2000 p. 13). I believe that the TRC itself is not a topic on its own in the grade 9 curriculum, but goes along with the negotiations leading up to the 1994 elections, the South African Constitution, Land Claims Commission, the Claims Court and land restitution.

The TRC as a Model for Peace Education

Some academic educationists have argued that the TRC offers a model for peace education, in that the process meets the four criteria outlined by peace education theorists:

  • A willingness to accept the narrative provided by the other as well as its implications
  • Achievement of empathy
  • A willingness to acknowledge the culpability of the state
  • A determination to see the conflict and the actions of various participants in relativistic rather than absolute terms

Enslin (2000) notes that the educational impact of the TRC may have been more powerful during the life of the Commission than subsequently. For school learners the issues may be morally too complex, and an effective peace education programme in schools would also need a strong emphasis on civic competence and life skills in general. I tend to agree with Enslin and suggest that this may be more appropriate in the arena of adult education and universities.

Crain Soudien, known to be in the school of sceptics regarding the TRC, feels that the TRC is

"somewhat deficient as a pedagogical model for teaching peace. The way in which the TRC defined the parameters of apartheid, or in educational speak, the way in which it framed the lesson of apartheid, was too narrow."

For Soudien, apartheid was not put on trial, its heinous henchmen were. For me there is an element of truth too in what Soudien says. What needs consideration is the intention behind the work of the Commission: the investigation of the causes, effects and impact of human rights violations and the "spin-off" of the process of uncovering these violations. What also needs to be borne in mind is the fact that the TRC was just one instrument amongst others to foster conflict transformation in this country.


The links between the TRC and the institutional reform and transformation of the education system are sometimes more obvious than others. Both the TRC and educational reform are prescribed by the Constitution and the negotiated settlement - which was founded on reconciliation. Both had a mandate to foster nation building and citizenship based on the values of human rights and dignity. The TRC had a limited life span (so it must be), whereas education has a slower, longer and more burdensome mandate, for it has to ensure that the education of all, including adults, is founded on the values expressed in the new education policies. Many attempts have been made to break with the past but I believe that much still has to be done in all sectors of our society. While comparisons are not in and of them-selves bad, we must not take them too far. The TRC's mandate was to uncover gross violations of human rights and the historical truth behind those violations in order for reconciliation to take place. The transformation of education takes place without an understanding of the individual or systemic complicity in the grand apartheid scheme. Some have argued that there should have been a TRC in education.

While the euphoria of the early 1990s, with the release of Mandela and the unbanning of the liberation movements, has long subsided, the slow, difficult task of rebuilding has started in earnest. Many have rolled up their sleeves to ensure that the aspirations of equality, justice and freedom for all are achieved, not least in the education sector, and especially for those who were not able to get an education and are now adults. I still treasure the moments when I reflect on how far we have come in the last 12 years and how far we have yet to go.


Colin Marks, S (2001) Watching the Wind, Conflict Resolution During South Africa's Transition to Democracy. United States Institute of Peace Press, Washington, DC.

Department of Education (2000a). Norms and Standards for Educators. Pretoria: DOE, February.

Department of Education (2000b). Education for All: the South African Assessment Report. Pretoria; DOE, March.

Department of Education (2000c). Report of the History and Archaeology Panel to the Minister of Education. Pretoria: DOE. December.

Enslin, P (2000). Citizenship, identity and myth: educational implication of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a model of Peace Education. Change: Transformations in Education. Vol. 3, No 1.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report, Volume 4 (1998).

Personal reflections on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the pre 1994 elections.

Tutu D (1998). No future without forgiveness.

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