Digitization and archiving of historical materials is an intensely political process. While technical aspects are still crucial to having a functioning online resource, we must realize that cultural heritage informatics projects are done for specific reasons. I’d like to elaborate on one of my favorite, if still partially flawed digital resources: the SABC Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) website.

As many of you may already know, post-apartheid South Africa, rather than engaging in Nuremberg-style trials, took a different step – opting instead for a truth and reconciliation commission. Those who had committed human rights abuses (on both sides of the colonial war) could appear before the commission at one of its various locations throughout the country and reveal the circumstances of the crimes they committed. In order to receive amnesty, they were required to present the whole truth, as well as prove that their crimes were politically motivated. There were also criminal investigations into the crimes committed; if the investigation didn’t match up with the confession, amnesty would not be granted. For reasons like this, only 12% of confessions resulted in amnesty.

Each week, the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) would broadcast a short video review of the confessions, with stock footage and interviews conducted in the investigations. This was also broadcast as a radio version as well. The goals of the TRC included not just criminal investigations and truth-seeking, but also nation-building. Viewers and participants were captivated by what was going on in the investigations, and after the TRC final report was submitted, efforts were made to continue providing this information to the public.

The Project

In March 2013, the South African History Archive (SAHA), in coordination with the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), launched an online version of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a commemoration of the 2003 TRC submission to the government. Based largely on digitization of the Special Report television series, the SABC TRC website seeks to make the Truth and Reconciliation Commission proceedings and accompanying transcripts and documentation available to the public. The site has largely met its mandate; the film is uploaded and transcribed, and documents are available. However, as more scholarship from and on the TRC becomes available, it will not find its way onto this site. The website is complete and will not be added to; in fact, the web-design company, Black Square, is no longer in operation and cannot even be contacted for technical issues. Therefore, we must use the archive knowing that it is a final product.

Accessibility & Technical Aspects

Since the SABC TRC website was launched as a ten-year commemorative project, the site was able to take advantage of a very obvious and important tool: YouTube. All eighty-seven episodes, divided into their respective sections are hosted externally on the SABC YouTube page and embedded into the TRC site to accompany the transcripts. This is incredibly important for a number of reasons.

First, the TRC video collection will need much less attending to; as long as people are watching YouTube, the videos will be active and accessible in a format all can use. There won’t be any Real-Player issues. Second, hosting the videos on YouTube allows for individuals with lower bandwidth connections to decrease the resolution/quality of the picture to match their connection. Third, the YouTube “playlist” tool allows for dividing the videos into short clips based on the hearing or subject matter and still link them all together into their original episodes.

It’s clear that the non-video components of the TRC took a back seat in this project. Nevertheless, one can still easily find the TRC Final Report, amnesty hearing documents, transcripts, submissions, and minutes from reparations/reconciliation workshops. The site also boasts a 200+ entry glossary of relevant individuals, terms, and events. All of these non-AV materials, as well as numerous links to external websites, are incredibly useful for individuals looking to acquaint themselves with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Emotions and Violence in the Pursuit of Truth

The 1978 Cassinga Massacre

Screencapture from the The TRC Special Report (sabctrc.saha.org.za)  – 1978 Cassinga Massacre

After sitting for an afternoon and watching 7-8 episodes of the TRC Special Report, I can see how visually powerful the TRC was. For those taking part (and I presume for those watching on television or in the audiences), truth-seeking was a very emotional ordeal that put a human face on what could easily be dismissed as “politically motivated” actors. The white policeman who apologizes to a fourteen-year-old boy for murdering his parents in front of him – the white medic student who was told by his professor that it “didn’t matter if we made a mistake because they were black people” – countless mothers and fathers, white and black, crying over the deaths of their children. Regardless of whether the TRC fulfilled the therapeutic mission of oral history, watching this emotional event humanized the actors. Even Archbishop Desmond Tutu nearly broke down in Episode 48 out of frustration with F.W. de Klerk’s denial that he knew anything about Vlakplaas or other hit squads.

Televising the TRC and including stock footage provided another function: it showed violence. Some of the images accompanying the proceedings were gruesome and graphic; this wasn’t rated PG. Watching videos of necklacing made the pain palpable (see photo at right).


Screencapture from the The TRC Special Report (sabctrc.saha.org.za) Necklacing: A tire filled with petrol surrounds an accused informant

Seeing the mass grave of primarily women and children at Cassinga in Angola (photo at left) showed the effects of a “total onslaught” mentality. At bare minimum, the TRC broke down ignorance regarding the brutality and inhumanity of apartheid. Does that reconcile a divided nation? Not on its own; but it is surely a step in the right direction.


Post-Script: National TRC for an International Conflict?

In studying the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, we must remember that the anti-apartheid struggle was a regional struggle. Indeed, as Chris Saunders has reminded us, “the TRC Report makes the key point that more people died as a result of apartheid crimes in the region outside South Africa than in the country itself.”[1] This reveals some of the limits of a national TRC for an international conflict. In Namibia, for example, there have been no attempts to form anything like a TRC for a number of reasons. First, the SWAPO government still views its alleged human rights violations in Lubango camp in Angola as a major political liability. Second, the more obvious reason, many of the perpetrators of apartheid’s crimes are now citizens of another country, whether they are white Namibians who left for South Africa or African soldiers in Koevoet or the Bushmen regiments.[2]

For all the questions that the TRC answered, many events are still shrouded in mystery, especially with regards to Namibia and the Frontline States. Was SWAPO activist and attorney Anton Lubowski actually murdered by the CCB in Windhoek; or was he a paid informant, as Magnus Malan’s somewhat dubious evidence implies? Lack of international cooperation in truth-seeking, destruction of archival records in the run-up to 1994, and obvious hostility by some to the TRC proceedings clearly affected the production of historical closure for questions like this.

Although the TRC proceedings and the Special Report video archive does touch on some of the cross-border attacks and intrigue – Cassinga (Ep. 84), Lubowski (Ep. 47), Quatro (Ep. 51), Koevoet (Ep.80), IFP training in Caprivi (Ep. 63) – this remains a hole in the TRC historical narrative that researchers, journalists, students, and others must seek to fill.



[1]   Chris Saunders, “South Africa in Namibia/Angola: The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Account,” in Beyond the Border War: New Perspectives on Southern Africa’s Late-Cold War Conflicts, edited by Gary Baines & Peter Vale (Pretoria: UNISA Press, 2008), 268.

[2]   See Justine Hunter, “Dealing with the Past in Namibia: Getting the Balance Right between Justice and Sustainable Peace?” in The Long Aftermath of War: Reconciliation and Transition in Namibia, edited by André du Pisani, Reinhart Kößler & William A. Lindeke (Freiburg: Arnold Bergstraesser Institut, 2010),403-434.