International Justice

CJ354 Endicott College

Political Pardons and the Promise of South Africa’s Truth Commission

This article discusses the South African President’s plan to pardon at least 149 “serious offenders” of Apartheid-era violence and potentially hundreds more.  This move would in many ways delegitimize the work of South Africa’s Truth Commission.  Under the TRC, perpetrators could either confess to their crimes, if the crimes were politically or racially motivated, apply for amnesty, or would face prosecution.  However, in practice, prosecution was largely an empty threat as very few ever faced charges.  Over 7,000 applied for amnesty, but only about 1,000 applications met the political motivation criterion and were granted amnesty.

With this legacy of unaccountability for the vast majority of perpetrators, the pardons currently considered by the South African government would exacerbate this problem.  Not only does it directly contradict the threat of prosecution for perpetrators made by the TRC, most concerning is the impact on the victim community.  Starting in 2007 when former President Mbeki created a Special Dispensation on Political Pardons, the pardon process has been conducted entirely in secret without any victim participation.  Pervious pardons have included high level police commissioners and those guilty of serious crimes including serial killings and bombings.  There have been many complaints from groups in civil society and victim communities, but the government has failed to make the pardon process more transparent, tarnishing the legacy of reconciliation and restoration the Truth Commission attempted to establish.

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One response to “Political Pardons and the Promise of South Africa’s Truth Commission

  1. bconroy2015 March 30, 2015 at 9:44 am

    The article makes the good point that these pardons are “predicated on a lie” and these aren’t the values that you want to build a nation on. Yet, so much of the rhetoric has been that the amnesties granted help reconcile and heal the country. The problem is that the sheer amount of pardons blatantly marginalizes the victims’ interests and therefore the statement that it is promoting healing and inclusivity must be a lie. South Africa is a unique situation because the victims make up the majority and because relative peace was achieved after the conflict.

    South Africa is also in a unique position because it has become a model for many subsequent truth commissions. With that in mind, these pardons set a dangerous precedent. They do a lot of harm to the victims domestically, but beyond that they show that state leaders like Jacob Zuma have the power to basically contradict the truth commission’s objectives twenty years after the conflict has ended.

    It is also interesting that the article brought up the case of Colombia, where reduced sentences were being given. In that sense reprieves and lessened sentences can be powerful tools if the goal is confession; however, full-blown pardons especially the amount given in South Africa only compromise the victims’ interests.

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