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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

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The South African Truth Commission: The Politics of Reconciliation
Dorothy Shea

Washington, DC, United States Institute of Peace, 2000
128 pp, ISBN 1-929223-09-9, 6.50



This book provides an insightful analysis of the political dynamics underlying the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Although small in size, it is an excellent and thorough account of the external factors which shape and influence the works of a truth commission.

The book can be divided in two main parts. The first part provides a description of the political process which accompanied the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Chapter two illustrates the influence of previous truth commissions on the development of the commission, while chapter three describes the political dilemmas and compromises which accompanied the work of the commission. Particular attention is directed towards the selection of commissioners, the amnesty process, the reparation process, the release of the final report, and the prosecution process.

In the second part of the book, a deeper analysis of the politics behind the truth commission is given. Chapter four offers a 'report card' on the South African truth commission, 'grading' the truth commission on a number of criteria including its degree of public ownership, its mandate, its impartiality and independence, its results and its administration. Each criterion is accompanied by various references to the works of Louis Joinet, special rapporteur for the United Nations Sub-Commission for Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, and Priscilla Hayner, Director of the International Centre for Transitional Justice. Both authors have developed minimal standards, which can assist truth commissions in becoming credible and effective. Building on their work as well as on the previous chapters Chapter Five offers a number of indicators for successful future truth commissions.

Through her articulate and comprehensive style, Dorothea Shea has managed to make this book a clear and enjoyable read for professionals in the field of conflict resolution as well as interested members of the general public. Lengthy descriptions of the political background in South Africa are avoided. Examples are used frequently and to good effect. A minor drawback is that the book has not been updated since it was completed in 1999, and therefore does not include information on developments after this date. Nevertheless, the book is a definite must-read for societies contemplating the use of a truth commission.


Tineke Vaes, Intern, INCORE



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