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The Preservation and Access to Records and Stories relating to the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) is a joint Historical Papers (The Library, University of the Witwatersrand) and the South African History Archives Project.

Material produced and collected around the TRC process constitutes a rich resource for social memory, both in South Africa and internationally. Within this conceptual frame, promoting public access is an objective of the highest priority for this project.

In the broadest sense of the word “archive”, the TRC archive includes not only records generated by the TRC, but also the ever-shifting stories in relation to the TRC carried by a myriad people, including victims. It also includes records used by the TRC, mainly records of state structures, and documentation of the TRC process by a wide range of individuals and organisations, within and outside of South Africa. In this sense, the TRC archive is immeasurable.

There are numerous concerns in relation to the preservation and accessibility of records relating to the TRC, particularly given their heterogeneity and the degree to which they are dispersed. Our project attempted to:  

  • Locate and identify all these accumulations by means of an archival audit or survey.
  • Take into custody copies and/or originals of these identified accumulations
  • Arrange and describe these collections
  • Make parts of this TRC material accessible both in situ and through the WWW (by means of the digitisation of materials) and in accordance with South Africa's copyright and access legislation.
  • Conduct oral histories with various individuals officially associated with the Truth and Reconciliation in order to document their experiences and retrospective assessments of the TRC as a process.

It is hard to over-emphasise the significance of South Africa's TRC in either national or international contexts. Described as the largest survey of human rights violations undertaken anywhere in the world, it has become the key instrument in democratic South Africa's interrogation of its apartheid past.

Although its mandated focus is on gross human rights violations perpetrated in the period 1960-1994, it has consistently attempted to position these violations within broader societal processes. A wealth of information on the apartheid era has emerged and been fed into a range of other processes committed to shaping South Africa's future through an understanding of its past.

The TRC has mobilised South Africans across political, racial and other divides to engage individual and collective memories of the past, and to debate the importance of memory to processes of reconciliation, envisioning the future and nation-building. This has influenced profoundly South Africa's commitment to an identity-formation founded on the confronting of harsh realities inherited from the past. Such commitment is central to the huge challenge posed by the ideal of reconciliation.

The TRC's rationale assumes South Africa to be deeply divided, and to need healing - not through a forgetting of the history of division, but through formal engagements with that history. The TRC, then, is a key instrument in South Africa's endeavour to find a post-apartheid reconciliation. So that its significance is related not only to memory of the past. As significant is its contribution to memory of South Africa's transition to democracy. Future historians of the transition will find the story of the TRC looming large. So that the operational records of the TRC - the documentation of the TRC as process - are as important a memory resource as the records of the past which it has both reclaimed and generated.

Unlike truth commissions in many other countries, South Africa's TRC has been a public forum. From the appointment of its Commissioners to the hearing of individuals' stories in public spaces, it has been committed to the principles of transparency and public participation. Saturation coverage by the media, most significantly the South African Broadcasting Corporation's live coverage of public hearings, took the work of the TRC into homes across the country.

Public hearings were not restricted to larger centres - instead, stretching itself to the limit logistically, it sought as far as possible to make the hearings accessible to communities in remote areas. Over 22 000 victims of human rights violations made statements to the TRC, and more than 7 000 perpetrators applied for amnesty. Approximately 10% of the victims gave evidence at public hearings.

At the height of its impact on public discourse, in the period 1996-1998, the TRC was being discussed and debated in homes, classrooms, offices and factories. No longer were South Africans able to deny atrocities of the past or to claim that they were not in a position to know. No longer were victims forced to carry the burden of their memories without public recognition and support.

Without claiming for South Africa a unique status, it is not an exaggeration to assert for South Africa's TRC an important contribution to world memory. The struggles against apartheid, especially in the 1970s and 1980s, marshalled resources in many countries against the apartheid state. The work of national anti-apartheid movements and international sanctions initiatives drew South Africa into the spotlight, where it came to symbolise racist resistance to the forces of democratisation.

Not surprisingly, then, the transition to democracy in the post-1990 period drew huge attention from the international media. South Africa was on the front pages around the world. Much of this attention focused on the work of the TRC. Its exposures of apartheid atrocities were reported on. The public hearings were covered extensively. Its contribution to reconciliation was explored. Its endeavours were compared to those of other countries' truth commissions.

TRC Commissioners and staff participated in numerous international conferences and seminars both in South Africa and outside the country. The TRC website disseminated information around the world. The Report, published in 1998, has been acknowledged as one of the twentieth century's most historically significant documents. Foreign academics, students and journalists have bombarded the TRC with requests for access to its documentation.

Numerous institutions from many countries have offered expertise and resources to ensure that the TRC's archive is professionally managed and made accessible. And some have sought to collect documentation from the TRC in order to make it more accessible internationally.

Of course, the TRC is not without its critics. The composition of the Commission has been criticised. It has been suggested that its focus on gross human rights violations within a specific period contributes to a skewing of social memory. Its processes of selection and interpretation have been critiqued. It has been accused of political bias. Many of its findings have been questioned.

The concept of amnesty has been challenged, and specific amnesty decisions rejected. Its work of reparation and rehabilitation has been found inadequate. Its contribution to reconciliation has been questioned. And so on, and on. These are important debates. Important at many levels, not least in terms of their potential contribution to processes of reconciliation.

South Africans finding one another, not by forgetting (in this instance, the work of the TRC), but by remembering and imagining a way forward. It is crucial, then, that space be provided for these debates. Part of this space is constituted by the archive of the TRC. Every interrogation of its work will rely ultimately on access to records of the TRC and about the TRC.