This is the sixth in a series of seven dispatches from a visit by students in the Southern Oregon University Honors College to South Africa.

“My father always used to say, 'Don't raise your voice. Improve your argument.' Good sense does not always lie with the loudest shouters, nor can we say that a large, unruly crowd is always the best arbiter of what is right.”

― Archbishop Desmond Tutu

For the past several weeks now, these dispatches have focused on the historical, social, cultural, political and artistic life in South Africa. The dispatches are reflections of participants who visited South Africa recently as part of Southern Oregon University’s Democracy Project (DP). The DP is a comprehensive examination of democracy around the world in the 21st century. Some of the issues to be studied include the historical evolution of democracy, sovereignty, nationalism, citizenship, feminism, patriotism, imperialism, freedom, liberty, security and equality.

Towards this end, over the last the four years participants in the DP have traveled to Washington, D.C., India, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and the Czech Republic. In each location, the group learned and got a firsthand experience of how their respective democracies function, from federal to regional to village levels. The focus of this dispatch is South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which has attracted worldwide attention as a model for how to overcome, transcend and move forward as a nation, after experiencing horrific oppression, discrimination, and other atrocities.

In 1995, under the leadership of Nelson Mendala, the first president of post-Apartheid South Africa, the government passed a law establishing the formation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The central purpose of the commission was to, “promote re-conciliation and forgiveness among perpetrators and victims of apartheid by the full disclosure of truth.” Apartheid was the racial institution established in 1948 by the National Party that governed South Africa until 1994. It was a policy of segregation — political and economic discrimination — against the non-European groups in South Africa. The commission was given three principle tasks:

1. Discover the causes and nature of human rights violations in South Africa between 1960 and 1994.

2. Identify victims with a view to paying reparations.

3. Allow amnesty to those who disclosed their involvement in human-rights violations. One of the main aims of the commission was to help South Africa transition to a democratic nation after the end of decades of apartheid rule. Archbishop Desmond Tutu was appointed as its chairperson.

The work of the TRC was carried out through three principle committees: the Human Rights Violations Committee, which investigated human rights abuses between 1960 and 1994; the Reparation and Rehabilitation Committee, which was charged with restoring victims’ dignity and formulating proposals to assist with rehabilitation; and the Amnesty Committee, which considered amnesty in accordance with the provisions of the act.

In his many writings, Archbishop Tutu wrote about the importance and value of the TRC. He was keenly aware of the need for South Africa to move forward, after decades of oppression, discrimination and violence, the country had to come to terms with its past and that this had to include all of her people, regardless of color or ethnicity. To underscore this point, he wrote, “My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours. We belong in a bundle of life. We say, a person is a person through other persons.” He went on to say, “A person is a person through other persons; you can't be human in isolation; you are human only in relationships.” These ideas formed the moral foundation of the TRC. Despite some criticisms, the work of the TRC has been hailed as successful and helping South Africa establish itself as a functioning democracy.

The success of the TRC in South Africa is now a model for countries around the world to deal with their own similar, difficult past histories to foster peace and reconciliation. To list a few: The Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission was set up to investigate incidents of human rights abuses in the Canadian Indian residential schools. The National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation in Colombia was set up to assist victims who suffered in the armed conflict. The Commission on the Truth for El Salvador was setup to investigate the atrocities of the Salvadoran Civil War. The Sri Lankan government set up a South Africa-style truth and reconciliation commission to look into atrocities during its 26-year conflict between government forces and separatist Tamil Tiger rebels. In Rwanda, the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission was set up to organize national public debates aimed at promoting reconciliation, foster tolerance and a culture of peace and human rights, after the genocide that took place in 1994 between the Hutus and Tutsis, which resulted in the deaths of an estimated 500,000 to 1 million people over a hundred-day period.

One might wonder what could have happened if this approach had been implemented by American leaders such as Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King, Jr. Could the TRC approach be used today, and if so, in what ways?

The work of the TRC and its impact on the world clearly demonstrates how nations can overcome the challenges they face through peace, dialogue, and non-violent means. As Desmond Tutu has repeatedly exhorted peoples around the world, “Language is very powerful. Language does not just describe reality. Language creates the reality it describes.” There is a lot we can learn from the South African experience. As my friend and colleague often reminds me, we can accomplish a lot by choosing to be “a part of one another rather than apart from one another.”

—Dr. Prakash Chenjeri is a Professor of Philosophy at Southern Oregon University.